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Percy, with Annabeth and Grover behind him, looking around a room full of eerie sculptures Photo: David Bukach/Disney

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Percy Jackson shouldn’t have explained it all away

Speedrunning The Lightning Thief to get to the rest of the series

Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

Disney Plus’ Percy Jackson and the Olympians series had both an incredibly easy and thoroughly impossible task: Adapt a book series and do it better than last time.

Adapting beloved book series that many grew up with is never easy, but then again, surely anything would be better than the creator-disavowed infamous 2010 movie adaptation. Expectations were high, especially with author Rick Riordan heavily involved in every step of the process and promises that this show would get it right.

Maybe that’s why, in the end the first season, Percy Jackson and the Olympians feels a little empty. It checks all the boxes, but it’s almost like the show is trying to get out of its own way, frantically scrambling to keep ahead of the viewers who are familiar with the source material so that the showrunners can finally adapt parts of the books that didn’t get a chance at the big screen. It’s a shame, though, because there’s a sprinkling of wonderful things throughout the show that almost make it amazing — and it’s those sparks that fueled the flame of the fandom throughout it all.

[Ed. note: This review contains spoilers for Percy Jackson and the Olympians.]

Annabeth, Percy, and Grover getting cheeseburgers with Ares in a dingy roadside diner Photo: David Bukach/Disney

The first season of Percy Jackson and the Olympians adapts the first book in Rick Riordan’s series of the same name, where troubled preteen Percy Jackson (Walker Scobell) finds out that Greek myths are real and he’s actually the son of Poseidon. Along with Annabeth (Leah Jeffries), daughter of Athena, and his satyr friend Grover (Aryan Simhadri), Percy embarks on a cross-country quest to recover Zeus’ stolen lightning bolt and (more importantly to him) save his mom.

Every adaptation changes some elements about the source material, and Percy Jackson and the Olympians is no exception. In this particular case, though, a lot of the changes feel like deliberate updates to make the story keep up with the times. Some of these updates make sense: The casting, for instance, is way more inclusive than the first Rick Riordan series. There’s no bad jokes about girly-girls made at the expense of the entire Aphrodite cabin. And of course, there was the whole “the Greek gods follow the light of Western civilization” bit in the books, a very Eurocentric notion that’s thankfully been retired for the show. These are all small, superficial things that definitely help softly update the books to translate better with what modern fans expect. Which is why the change that feels most directly targeted at the audience that grew up with the book robs the show of most of its fun.

The original Percy Jackson books were very much designed to give young readers an introduction to Greek mythology, but now, some of those young readers are older, and the franchise has taught them the ins and outs of the gods and monsters. In the show, this translates to Percy and his friends immediately clocking what threats await them and savvily avoiding the same hardships of the book. Sure, you can explain away how this makes sense — this is the world Grover’s known his whole life, Annabeth’s been doing the monster-fighting schtick forever, and Percy grew up with his mother telling him Greek myths as bedtime stories — but what’s the fun in having characters one step ahead of everything? There’s not as much tension, not as much sense of discovery. It also cuts down on a lot of the action, and it feels like the characters are telling us what’s going on instead of experiencing it for themselves.

Grover talking to Percy and Annabeth, as they stand in front of the glitzy Lotus Hotel and Casino entrance Photo: David Bukach/Disney

Instead, there’s a weird sense that the showrunners are pressing fast forward, trying to get as much of the story out of the way as possible so that they can get ready for the next book entirely. I get it; fans of the book series (like myself) know the plot beats of The Lightning Thief. They already have the 2010 movie, for whatever that’s worth. They want the next thing, want to see their favorite characters and plot points, want to see the whole series on screen instead of the beginning part over and over again. But the first season feels like an echo of the story, like it’s counting on so much on the audience to be OK with a SparkNotes summary, when it should be the methodical foundation that sets up future seasons.

The most frustrating part of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, though, is the glimmering moments of when it does work, because it shows that the showrunners do have a sense of what a television adaptation needs. By the virtue of being narrated directly by Percy, the book series didn’t really dabble in deeper backstory moments for the other characters. But a television adaptation can. The conversation between Ares (Adam Copeland) and Grover at the diner, for instance, was actually a great way to showcase Grover’s savviness about the workings of the gods. Yes, he’s figuring something out, but there was a clear method and escalation behind it, instead of him immediately clocking a threat. (Not to mention, it just gave a new interaction with Copeland’s pretty dang wonderful Ares.) The best example, however, is the tender, poignant moment between Sally (Virginia Kull) and Poseidon (Toby Stephens) at the end of episode 7.

Sally Jackson and Poseidon sit at a bar, having an emotional conversation, though neither of them look at each other. Image: Disney

The entire episode had many flashbacks to Sally’s struggle as a single parent of a troubled kid who just so happened to be the son of a god, and it culminated in probably the best scene in the show. That entire flashback helped shed some light on this complex world of gods and monsters, expanded Sally’s character and her relationship with both Percy and Poseidon, and also gave Poseidon some deliciously human angst. The final scene was beautifully bittersweet, and an aggravatingly tantalizing example of how the showrunners utilized this distinct medium to do what the original source material couldn’t.

Which is ultimately the most vexing thing about this adaptation: There’s nuggets of a great show in Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Everything about Sally Jackson is done so thoughtfully and really helps flesh out the world. Scobell, Jeffries, and Simhadri have an easy and engaging on-screen chemistry and a great command of their characters, and their added interactions really help hammer their bond home. Copeland delivers as Ares, walking the line between goofy and menacing with finesse. Hopefully, with the first book out of the way, the showrunners can thoughtfully dig into the great moments in the next season, and home in on what works instead of just trying to speedrun their quest.

All episodes of Percy Jackson and the Olympians are available on Disney Plus now. Here’s everything we know about season 2.