When it comes to teen TV, there’s truly nothing that can make or break a show quite like a love triangle. Whether it’s Dawson/Pacey/Joey in Dawson’s Creek, or Conrad/Jeremiah/Belly in The Summer I Turned Pretty, love triangles are popular because they tap into an audience’s desire for competition and community. With two potential love interests to choose from, the act of watching a series becomes a game in itself as viewers place their bets on their choice of ship. And from a pure storytelling perspective, love triangles are an easy way to stir up drama and emotional conflict for the protagonist.
That doesn’t mean they are always successful. In Netflix’s My Life With the Walter Boys, the central love triangle turns out to be the teen drama’s weakest link. Based on Ali Novak’s novel of the same name, the coming-of-age series centers on Jackie Howard (Nikki Rodriguez), a 15-year-old Manhattanite whose life is upended after losing her entire family in a tragic accident. Leaving behind her privileged New York lifestyle, Jackie moves to rural Colorado to live with her mother’s best friend, Katherine (Sarah Rafferty), who is raising 10 kids with her husband, George (Marc Blucas).
As she’s navigating her new life in the countryside, Jackie gets caught up with conflicting feelings for two of the Walter boys: Alex (Ashby Gentry), a sweet romantic with an affinity for fantasy novels and gaming, who is instantly infatuated with Jackie, and his older brother Cole (Noah LaLonde), the broody it-boy with a secret heart of gold.
Much of what occurs in My Life With the Walter Boys is unsurprising. The show is oversaturated with teen TV cliches, some of which include a big blowout fight in the rain, a risqué truth or dare game, and a romantic power outage during a storm. And while there’s nothing wrong with utilizing a formula, the show’s overreliance on these tropes makes the episodes bland. Where’s the fun in romance if you can predict every character’s next move?
The Alex/Jackie/Cole love triangle capitalizes on two classic romantic archetypes: the sensitive, attainable boy-next-door type vs. the snarky, unavailable guy with hidden demons of his own. Jackie is a textbook example of a teen drama good girl, whose main focus is maintaining her goal of getting into Princeton. She and Alex fall into a safe relationship based on mutual interests, yet Jackie — to no one’s surprise — still can’t help but find herself drawn to the other Walter brother.
Meanwhile, Cole is the town’s resident golden boy turned ex-quarterback, thanks to a life-altering knee injury that destroyed his chances of a football scholarship. Despite the fact that he “doesn’t date,” Cole has an unlabelled on-again/off-again relationship with Erin (Alisha Newton), the most popular girl at school who immediately dislikes Jackie. Sound familiar?
The tedious love triangle draws attention away from the more substantial storylines among the other characters. Erin, in particular, has a promising arc that explores her own family trauma, specifically her unsteady relationship with her mother. The first half of the season spends far too much time depicting Erin as the scornful, jealous girlfriend constantly vying for Cole’s attention, subsequently relegating a lot of her necessary growth offscreen. It would have been much more meaningful to see Jackie and Erin develop a stronger friendship, given the parallels that the two share. Yet the duo don’t share any screen time after the end of their rivalry, almost as if the girls can’t exist in the same frame if they’re not arguing over a boy.
Her lack of chemistry with the two male leads notwithstanding, Jackie’s relationships with other members of the Walter family are much more convincing. The friendships she forms with Danny (Connor Stanhope), Cole’s theater-obsessed fraternal twin, and Nathan (Corey Fogelmanis), the household musician, are the sweetest. She actively forges bonds with these two brothers, whether it’s helping Danny with his Juilliard application, or going on daily morning runs with Nathan.
If only that same attention to detail was allotted to George’s nephews, Isaac (Isaac Arellanes) and Lee (Myles Perez). While a majority of the biological Walter children are given substantial subplots, there’s only one notable moment midseason that provides context as to why the cousins are also living with the Walters. Worse, the fact that Jackie shares a Hispanic heritage with them is largely glossed over, as the only acknowledgement comes in the form of two brief scenes where the trio speak Spanish to one another.
That isn’t to say that diversity is an issue — in fact, it might be the most successful aspect of the entire series. Rodriguez is fantastic as Jackie, skillfully navigating between the overwhelming grief of losing someone’s family and the growing pains of being 15. The series also features a plethora of dynamic actors of color, all of whom hold strong, notable quirks that add to their characters’ appeal. Best of all, My Life With the Walter Boys provides a refreshing spin on the holiday episode by spotlighting an Indigenous character dispelling myths about the origins of Thanksgiving and shedding light on the community’s day of mourning.
The show’s strongest narrative centers on one of the older, more established couples. At 25 years old, Will (Johnny Link), the oldest Walter boy, is working an unfulfilling job in real estate and struggling to balance his career aspirations and his relationship with his fiancée, Hayley (Zöe Soul). Meanwhile, Hayley feels emotionally sidelined as Will takes on more responsibilities at the local Lark Café, even helming a business idea to turn the space into a swanky restaurant after hours — Lark After Dark. Since Will and Hayley’s arc is mostly separate from the main Walter household, it’s afforded much more room for proper development. The same can’t be said for the two heads of the Walter clan, Katherine and George, whose financial troubles with the ranch are reduced to the background to make space for the teenage storylines.
Perhaps it was inevitable, with the sheer number of the titular boys, but My Life With the Walter Boys struggles to give each character their due, resulting in a sea of underdeveloped storylines. The overreliance on well-worn tropes plays more like a regurgitation than a successful homage to the teen drama formula, and the execution lacks the finesse needed to breathe new life into those familiar elements. While the finale manages to more or less tie together everybody’s arc, the journey there ultimately leaves much to be desired.
My Life With the Walter Boys premieres December 7th on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Dianna Shen is a TV Writer at Primetimer based in New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine and Decider, among other outlets.
TOPICS: My Life with the Walter Boys