‘My Life With the Walter Boys’ Review: Netflix YA Series Is a Jumble of Romance Tropes With No Substance

The love story at the center of the teen drama has all the personality of smashing dolls together and demanding that they kiss

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Nikki Rodriguez and Ashby Gentry in "My Life with the Walter Boys." (Netflix)

Girl meets boy. Boy has a brother. Brother meets girl. Brothers compete for girl’s affection. Drama ensues. It’s a story almost as old as time itself. But the thing about “My Life With the Walter Boys” that helps it stand out is… Uh…

I can come up with no good ending to that sentence. And therein lies the problem.

Created by Melanie Halsall and adapted from the 2014 novel of the same name by Ali Novak (which she wrote at the age of 15 and originally published on Wattpad), “My Life With the Walter Boys” follows 15-year-old Jackie Howard (Nikki Rodriguez), who is all set to have the best sophomore year ever at her elite New York City private school when disaster strikes — her entire family is killed in a horrible accident. After the funeral, Jackie has to uproot her life to go meet her new guardians, George and Katherine Walter (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” actor Marc Blucas and “Suits” star Sarah Rafferty), who live on a ranch in the small town of Silver Falls, Colo.

Back in their college days, Katherine was Jackie’s mother’s best friend, but life got in the way. It’s been a long time since they were able to see one another, making the Walters strangers to Jackie. The strain on Katherine’s schedule is understandable, since she and George have eight biological children and two nephews living under their roof. Honestly, it’s a wonder either of them has time to blink, much less keep up long-distance friendships.

Enter the titular Walter boys: 20-something Will (Johnny Link), bad boy Cole (Noah LaLonde) and his twin, aspiring thespian Danny (Connor Stanhope), sensitive Alex (Ashby Gentry), musician Nathan (Corey Fogelmanis), filmmaker Jordan (Dean Petriw), and five-year-old Benny (Lennix James). Rounding out the family are nine-year-old Parker (Alix West Lefler), the only girl in the sea of boys, and Walter cousins Lee (Myles Perez) and Isaac (Isaac Arellanes) Garcia. With the exception of Benny, Parker and Will, all of these kids are in high school.

Right off the bat, it’s clear that the main competition for Jackie’s affections will be between Cole and Alex, who waste no time getting straight to smoldering the second they’re introduced to their new housemate. What follows is a predictably angsty high school love triangle, with both boys vying for Jackie’s attention and her wrestling with her feelings for each of them throughout the school year.

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Corey Fogelmanis (left), Ashby Gentry, Connor Stanhope, Noah LaLonde, Sarah Rafferty, Marc Blucas, Alex Quijano, Nikki Rodriguez, Zoë Soul, Alisha Newton, Isaac Arellanes and Myles Perez in “My Life with the Walter Boys.” (Netflix)

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this formula. Families are tricky, sibling rivalry is inevitable, grief is hard, and if science could figure out a way to channel the raw power of teenage hormones into something useful, we could be done with fossil fuels tomorrow. There are plenty of great shows delivering fantastic characters and thoughtful storytelling that exist within this space: Prime Video’s “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” and Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever” and “Heartstopper” are just a few recent series that have charmed audiences of all ages, to say nothing of the angsty teen classics of the past such as “Dawson’s Creek,” “Gossip Girl” and “Party of Five.”

High school can be a wild time, which makes for great stories. So when I say that “My Life With the Walter Boys” falls flat, it’s not because the bones of a great series weren’t there. The premise is fine (yes, I had to do some math to make sure that the ages of all the boys actually work on a gestational level, but they do. Katherine would have been extremely tired, but at least she was not defying the laws of nature). The characters could have worked too, if only they were given some room to develop any sort of identity of their own beyond simple tropes.

The first time Jackie encounters Cole, he is emerging from a pool in slow motion, shaking water droplets from his hair and sunning himself like a teenage Adonis. Rather than introduce himself as all the others are doing, he smirks and tells his brother she’ll “figure out” who he is. The next time he sees her, he bestows upon her the nickname “New York,” and then justifies his rudeness by telling Will that “she’ll have to learn to take a little rough and tumble” to make it in Colorado.

Keep in mind, Jackie has barely said two words to Cole at this point, but he’s already decided to antagonize her for… reasons. Ah yes, classic bad boy.

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Nikki Rodriguez and Noah LaLonde in “My Life with the Walter Boys.” (Netflix)

Most of the other boys are similarly introduced doing the one activity that will henceforth be their thing(Italicize): Danny is reading a script. Nathan is playing guitar. Jordan is behind a video camera (an odd touch that feels very early aughts, considering that now most teens just film on their phones). Alex is ostensibly playing video games but pauses immediately to gaze longingly at Jackie, a thing he will do a lot of in this series.

And… that’s kind of the show in a nutshell. Most of the Walker boys (and cousins) are never developed much beyond their singular interest in their hobby of choice. The sole exception outside of the Cole-Jackie-Alex love triangle may be Nathan, who gets a sweet (if underdeveloped) romantic subplot where he clumsily attempts to woo Jackie’s friend Skylar (Jaylan Evans). Otherwise, I ended the season not knowing much more about most of the people living in the Walker household than I did in the first episode.

Maybe it’s to be expected in a show with a large ensemble that some of the supporting characters will be given short shrift in service of the main plot. But Alex, Cole and Jackie fare a little better, each coming across more as a collection of YA stereotypes than as actual humans. Alex, the sensitive one, likes to read (his book of choice? “Fellowship of the Ring,”), and has a female best friend who has long harbored a secret crush on him. Cole, the bad boy, has a Regina George-like on-and-off girlfriend, a major chip on his shoulder thanks to a leg injury that derailed his hopes of a collegiate football career, and of course, a heart of gold when it comes to Jackie.

Nikki Rodriguez as Jackie in “My Life with the Walter Boys.” (Netflix)

And then there’s Jackie herself, who, despite Rodriguez’s inherent charm, has the personality of an unfrosted Pop-Tart. Most of the time, her interests seem determined solely by her laser-focus to attend Princeton (she’s only a sophomore, but is Rory Gilmore-esque in her Ivy League determination). While throwing yourself into an activity is one way some people process grief, this doesn’t seem to mark much of a change from who Jackie was before the loss of her family.

Similarly, Jackie’s attractions to both Cole and Alex, and her trauma itself, ebb and flow more with the demands of the plot than Jackie’s own wants, needs and struggles. Her attraction to each brother depends mostly on which one is standing closest to her at the time, and her grief only makes brief, convenient appearances in between school events and almost-kissing.

And therein lies the rub. With few exceptions, the entire world of “My Life With the Walter Boys” feels flimsy and thin, a surface-level amalgamation of popular tropes (Forced proximity! Grumpy-sunshine! Opposites attract! Forbidden romance!) with little substance underneath.

Unfortunately, that shallowness also applies to the show’s somewhat diverse cast. Jackie and the Garcia brothers are Latinx, Skylar is Black Indigenous, Will’s fiance Haley (Zoë Soul) is Black, and a number of supporting characters are from other various marginalized backgrounds. But for the most part, none of those diverse identities seem to impact how the characters move through the world, with the exception of Skylar and his father. In the second episode, Skylar tells Jackie that he intends on becoming a political journalist because “people from my background, we don’t have much political influence. I want to change that.”

An admirable goal, of course. But stated here in such a generic way that it feels more like checking a box than Skylar speaking from his heart.

That scene serves as an illustration for the entire show’s approach to racial diversity. It’s there on the surface, but feels more like tokenism than thoughtful representation. That isn’t to say that all shows with diverse casts need to be about marginalization; far from it. But the diversity of Silver Falls feels mostly colorblind in its approach, rather than authentic to the way marginalized individuals truly move through the world.

It’s unfortunate, because the cast seems to be doing their best with the flimsy material they’ve been given, and there are occasional moments where a better show peeks out from underneath. It’s most evident in the scenes with Katherine and George, who despite their busy careers (Katherine is a vet; George’s job, as far as I can tell, is simply “ranch”) are some of the more involved parents on TV, and Rafferty especially does a great job of sympathetically portraying the highs and lows of parenting eleven kids. Ashley Holliday Tavares is delightful in her scenes as high school guidance counselor Tara, making the most of her sparsely drawn (yet still kind of adorable) romantic subplot.

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Sarah Rafferty and Marc Blucas in “My Life with the Walter Boys.” (Chris Large/Netflix)

But those bright moments are too few and far between, and bogged down by contrived conflicts, whiplash-inducing character shifts, and some very confused chronology that may give you a migraine if you try to examine it too closely. By the time Jackie finally picks a brother, I’d be hard pressed to tell you why. Her relationships with both still seem superficial, as do their bonds with each other and the entire backstory of their rivalry.

I mentioned earlier that Novak originally penned “My Life With the Walter Boys” when she was 15 years old, which is amazing. Few 15-year-olds will ever even start writing a novel, much less finish one, find a publisher and get that novel adapted into a Netflix series. It’s a huge accomplishment, and one most writers of any age would envy.

But it’s been nearly a decade since the novel was first released in 2014, and even longer since Novak was uploading it for free on Wattpad. There’s a reason it was so popular back then, and why it was picked up for a series now. As I said before, the bones are there. But the problem with “My Life With the Walter Boys” is that it still feels like a teenager’s first attempt at writing a story, with none of the perspective and maturity that comes from existing in the world beyond high school (even if your characters are still stuck there).

If there is a Season 2 of “My Life With the Walter Boys” — and the ending of Season 1 certainly tees one up — my hope is that it moves beyond archetypes and tropes and allows its characters to breathe a little. Let them be complex. Let them be messy. Let them figure out who they really are, and let those identities inform where they go.

“My Life With the Walter Boys” premieres Thursday, Dec. 7, on Netflix.

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