For the Glory of Camp

Percy Jackson and the Olympians (2023): Season 1

We’re in a weird place where one of the biggest Young Adult franchises of all time, Harry PotterFirst released as a series of books (starting in the UK before moving worldwide), the Harry Potter series gained great acclaim before even becoming a series of successful movies. Now encompassing books, films, a prequel series, and a successful two-part play, the series even now shows no end in sight., isn’t the cultural touchstone it once was. This is, of course, all down to J.K. Rowling being a massive TERF and turning off a lot of people with her politics. What was once a series of books that every kid (not belonging to a religiously fanatical family) was encouraged to read is now discussed like, “sure, I enjoyed the books… but I don’t know that I can support the franchise now.” Hell the most recent games in the Wizarding World have been banned from major marathons and events because of the political mire they’re trapped in.

There is still a desire for tales of kids growing up in a magical world, learning to fight great evil while going on grand adventures. If it can’t be Harry Potter then some other franchise could be poised to slide in and take over the top dog spot. Frankly I think Percy Jackson is the perfect franchise to take over the crown. Although the books weren’t as massively popular as the Harry Potter series, and the movies based on those stories never took off the way the Wizarding World movie franchise managed, there’s potential for great stories, and solid viewing, from this series of YA novels about young demigods fighting the evils of the world.

To be clear, I did enjoy the first movie from the 2010 series, the long and awkwardly named Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, but its sequel wasn’t very good and any hope of further adventures was squashed. Fans of the novels were probably disappointed, but considering these were mid-budget, middling performers, I doubt most out in the audience even realize there was a second film, let alone that a third film (or more) could have happened. And that seemed to be the end of it for the franchise for a time. Author Rick Riordan continued putting out novels in the franchise, but on screens it seemed like the quest was already over. At least until Disney put a new, streaming series into production. Launched in December of 2023, and having just wrapped its first season (as of the time of this writing), the TV shows is a solid relaunch for the franchise, a good way to get fans, new and old, into the tale of Poseidon’s son, Percy.

Like the movie that came before, this first season of Percy Jackson and the Olympians follows our titular hero, Percy Jackson (Walker Scobell) as he learns that he’s not a normal kid but is, instead, a demi-god, the son of Poseidon. The Greek gods (and demi-gods, and myths, and monsters) are real, and there’s a whole world behind the scenes that most people can’t see. Percy could, and most schools he went to though he was crazy, a special needs case that wouldn’t fit in. Only when he’s finally sent to Camp Half-Blood does he learn who he is and the truth of the world.

Sadly, in the rush to get him to camp (after he’s attacked by, and has to defend himself from, a harpy) his mother (Virginia Kull) is seemingly killed by a Minotaur. When Percy learns that she might not be dead he, of course, wants to find a way to save her. And he just might be able to, as part of a larger quest to save all of the realms from a war between the gods. It seems that someone has stolen Zeus’s lightning bolt and, for some reason, Zeus blames Percy. Our hero has to go on a quest alongside his best friend, and satyr, Grover Underwood (Aryan Simhadri), and his ally, and daughter of Athena, Annabeth Chase (Leah Sava Jeffries), to find the bolt and get it back to Zeus before war comes for us all.

Although I’m sure the author would argue the point, there’s a lot of shared ideas between Harry Potter and Percy Jackson (and not just that they’re named after their titular heroes). They’re both stories about kids who think they’re normal, with at least one person in their lives that is abusive to them, who then discovers they’re actually, magical. They go off to a school just for people like them, where they become something of a hero to the students around them. And then they get wrapped up in a massive adventure (across many chapters) battling against a great, returning evil who wants to use the power of the hero to realize their own takeover of the world. Hell, each hero has a set of two friends – a goofy, loveable guy and a headstrong, powerhouse gal – aiding them in their repeated adventures. Take the heroes and swap them between their stories and neither of them would feel out of place.

The big difference between the two stories is that Harry Potter is an original IP based on a world created by J.K. Rowling about wizards and magic while Percy Jackson, while telling an original series of tales, focuses on Greek myths, monsters, and mayhem. It does make Percy Jackson feel a little like Greek myth fan-fiction, if I’m being honest. Especially here, in the TV series, where every episode features a new bit of lore taken from Greek myth, it can feel like the story is purposefully working in as many references to the myths of yore as it can just for the sake of having it. Yes, that’s the world, and that’s how it would be, but because the world comes from those legends and tales it can’t really step outside the bounds of that world. Harry Potter could do whatever it wanted; Percy Jackson is fenced in by comparison.

Even with that said, though, this season is pretty thrilling to watch. The stories are fairly episodic – Percy and friends have to deal with Medusa, Percy and Friends have to escape the mother of monsters, Percy and Friends have to go into the underworld – but that means each episode has its own self-contained quest it can follow. The overall adventure is serialized, but each episode has a localized story to tell, start to finish, giving viewers a sense of completion for each weekly story. That also means that we get a good climax at the end of each episode, keeping the momentum going. This isn’t like Game of Thrones where the stories wove and moved but often didn’t rise to a big moment until the end of a season. These are well paced, well plotted tales linking into a larger narrative properly.

Aiding the stories are the solid cast of kid actors. Scobell is great as Percy, giving his character the right amount of awe, nervousness, and heroic energy. Jeffries is also a great actress, able to convey the tough-as-nails style of Annabeth while also giving her enough emotion later in the series to be more than a Mary Sue. And SimHadri has enough goofy charm to make Grover work. Kid actors can be hard to cast, and harder to work with, but this trio is able to hold their own, not only with the story they’re in but also opposite the adult actors absolutely killing it in their cameo appearances as monsters and gods.

If there’s a real flaw with this season it’s that it feels rushed. It covers the same amount of story as the 2010 movie (which also felt rushed), both of which were based on the first book (of the same name). Even with 10 episodes (instead of just two-hours of film) this season feels like it’s breezing through some events. Percy gets to camp in the first episode and then is almost immediately whisked away on his quest in the second episode, leaving us with little time to get used to one setting before we have to deal with another. Each episode focuses on a part of the quest, but because the story is set up like a road trip, with the kids going cross country to find the lightning bolt, they also feel like they bounce from story beat to story beat without a lot of it sinking in. Any one of these locations could have been longer, or more involved, to hammer home more of the world and the setting. We need more time to explore various places and ideas to make them feel real.

But I guess, at the same time, it’s a good sign that I wanted to see more, to learn more, and to spend more time in this world. Even more so than the (flawed but enjoyable) movie, this version of Percy Jackson gives us characters and stories that we want to be a part of. The magic of Riordan’s books really does come out here on the screen, and Disney did a fantastic job bringing it all together. Here’s hoping we get more seasons of this show so that the series can build and grow and develop itself into the true Harry Potter alternative we all need right now.