"Like so many child-prodigy narratives, Home Before Dark finds it most expedient to have Hilde act, think, and talk more or less like a miniature adult (albeit with a kid’s stringent sense of right and wrong)," says Jesse Hassenger of the drama inspired by child journalist Hilde Lysiak. "Even a child actor as good as Brooklynn Prince can seem stilted and smarmy when handed self-consciously elevated child-genius dialogue. A character like Veronica Mars can at least make 'unrealistic' quippiness a window into her personality, sensibility, even her pain. A character like Hilde Lisko isn’t telling us anything about her character except that she’s ridiculously advanced for her age—over and over, with hacky laugh lines."
The tone of Home Before Dark deliberately swings from that of a family drama to an effervescent tween adventure and back again: "Whenever Hilde’s on-screen, the show is a gumshoe adventure, sometimes even with lovely animated interludes to explain backstory, or Hilde closing her eyes to remember a clue in her apparently photographic memory and applying Sherlock Holmes-style deduction," says Caroline Framke. "Whenever the spotlight is on (her father) Matt, it turns into a grittier tale of faded dreams, childhood trauma and corruption. It’s The Goonies by way of Serial, a no doubt attractive pitch that nonetheless has trouble establishing a steady voice of its own until deep into its first 10-episode season."
The contrast between precious girl Hilde and the dark story she’s reporting can at times feel out of whack: "Home Before Dark is both a bit scarier and more casually profane than the family-friendly experience suggested by its heroine," says Alan Sepinwall. "The show stumbles in other areas. There’s not quite enough to the mystery to fill 10 hours, which leads to doubling back over certain ideas — drink every time there’s a slo-mo montage of Hilde and her sister, Izzy (Kylie Rogers), arriving at school after Hilde has published another article. And (Jim) Sturgess is a bit too genially bland in a role that’s supposed to be the emotional core of the story, since Hilde is looking into this case to try to 'fix' her dad."
"Astonishing" Brooklynn Prince saves a show that can feel off-putting: "You will have noticed by now that script rewriting is evidently one skill that does not, alas, figure among Hilde’s multitudinous talents," says Lucy Mangan. "If the uncritical idolisation of Hilde is not offputting enough, there is also the dual-stranded plot that gives you the feeling of being in two not-great programmes at once. If it were just Hilde, Juvenile Reporter on her gumshoe adventures, it might just about function as a passable teatime show (as they used to be able to be called) – a sort of Veronica Mars for a younger demographic. But the apparent involvement of her father with missing child cases past and present mean his scenes appear plucked from a darker, more grown-up show. What saves it from simple tedious schmaltz (notwithstanding the clambering-on-tabletops-in-solidarity scene in the cafeteria as Hilde reads out – so fearlessly! So maturely! So driven-by-the-truthly! – the online comments from under her murder report) is Prince’s performance. She is simply astonishing. You wouldn’t believe her character in any other hands. Prince rises above the premise, the script, everything. She gives it her all and it is a mighty thing. It feels like a privilege to be there to witness the unfurling of such a vigorous talent. If she turns out to be able to write scripts too, that would be great."
Creators Dana Fox and Dara Resnik are trying to force two different wildly shows together: "But just because the two parts should work — a precocious pre-teen investigative journalist would necessarily have a family capable of carrying its own dramatic storyline — doesn’t mean they do, and Home Before Dark’s strange disconnect is a prime example," says Kevin Yeoman. "The trouble seems to be the show wants to appeal to a wider audience, to pull in those for whom the adventures of a nine-year-old proto-journalist don’t sound appealing. In doing so, Home Before Dark pits its raison d’être against its own supporting cast and necessary subplots. For whatever reason, the two simply don’t mix as well as they should."
Home Before Dark shows potential: "More often than not, what bonds the audience to Hilde is her tenacity and that puts her in a weird stage of being an adult in a child’s body," says Kristen Lopez. "The series goes the C.S.I. route of zooming in on bits of evidence only Hilde can see or presenting certain flashbacks as child-esque cutout drawings. There’s a lot happening within the series, and at over 40 minutes per episode there are elements that are superfluous, as though built to appeal to all family experiences."
Jim Sturgess and Brooklynn Prince easily bonded: "It's really sort of indescribable," Sturgess says of his chemistry with his TV daughter. "Luckily she's very confident and very fun, and actually she was putting me at ease more than me putting her at ease in the screen test. She was kind of auditioning me. But she was very giving with her energy and her time."
Home Before Dark creators wanted a show that was a throwback that felt relevant to 2020: “When we were talking to Apple, we were careful to talk about tone constantly, because we wanted it to feel a little Amblin-y, a little throwback, but through this modern day lens," says co-creator Dana Fox. "We live in a world that tries to tell us that truth can’t be known, that is attacking journalists, that is attacking the first amendment. We’re lucky to have Hilde as our North Star. No matter what’s going on in the world she says, ‘The truth matters, let’s go find it."
How Home Before Dark combined a real story with fiction: "As we were trying to figure out how to get into the story creatively, because obviously there was so much that was true, but we knew we had to fictionalize certain elements of it, we just kept saying over and over again, 'Let's take this character as seriously as she takes herself. Let's give her the treatment that is normally reserved for male movie stars. Let's let her be taken that seriously,'" says Fox.