Knuckles (TV Show) Review – Bare(ly) Knuckled –

Knuckles (TV Show) Review – Bare(ly) Knuckled

Sonic the Hedgehog was widely hailed as a live-action video game adaptation done right, thanks to borrowing a well-worn Hollywood formula–a buddy road trip with small-town sheriff James Marsden as his human sidekick. Now comes Knuckles, a six-part show pairing up the Sonic sidekick with Marsden’s sidekick, Deputy Wade Whipple (Adam Pally). But whereas the Sonic movies focused primarily on the hedgehog and used Marsden’s character for Sonic to bounce off of, the Knuckles adaptation flips that precedent on its head. Wade Whipple is the primary focus here, and Knuckles (Idris Elba) is alternatively the sidekick, mentor, and MacGuffin as the plot requires. The result is a generally entertaining family comedy about deputy and aspiring bowling champion Wade Whipple, which happens to have Knuckles peppered in.

Knuckles does feature heavily in the first episode, as we see his warrior traditions clashing with Sonic’s family, including brief cameos from Sonic, Tails, and matriarch Maddie played by Tika Sumpter. (Marsden’s character, Tom, is mentioned but never seen). But when Knuckles finds Wade in need of encouragement to win a bowling tournament, he takes this as an opportunity to train a protege in his warrior traditions. The two set off on a road trip for Reno, with shadowy figures on their tail aiming to steal Knuckles’ power. Cue hijinks.

The focus on Wade means that your enjoyment of Knuckles will rely a lot on how much you like Adam Pally’s comedy persona. He’s not doing anything surprising here–he’s playing the same likable, schlubby dork you may have seen in other roles, including the first two Sonic films. It’s especially broad in Knuckles, and he spends some moments in the first episode winking a little too much at the camera, but it works. And since that firmly places this more on the “comedy” side of the action-comedy spectrum, the real proof is in the laughs. Knuckles passed that test for me, with at least one big laugh per episode and a handful of mild chuckles surrounding them.

Wade is a loser and he knows it, but Knuckles sees that he has a big heart and wants to help him develop more confidence. The journey to Reno, ostensibly to win a bowling tournament, is also a chance for Wade to deal with his daddy issues. His absentee father (Cary Elwes) is a big celebrity in the bowling scene, apparently, and they used to play together before the dad walked out on the family. We also get to know Wade’s other family members–doting Jewish mother Wendy (Stockard Channing), and obnoxious, overbearing sister Wanda (Edi Patterson). Patterson is a particular standout, having cornered the market on playing hilariously horrible sisters (see also: The Righteous Gemstones, Violent Night). This time she’s an FBI agent, which she lords over Wade, who has only become a small-town deputy. All this helps inform what has made Wade into a stunted and needy person, and it creates a solid avenue for comedy that has nothing to do with space aliens or evil agents.

At the same time, it is strange to have a show called Knuckles that focuses so little on Knuckles. Even stranger is that the show tends to be at its best the more it focuses on Wade to the absence of Knuckles. The fourth episode revolves around Wade being forced to fend for himself without his superpowered echidna friend, which means Knuckles is barely even in the episode, and it’s one of the best and funniest of the series. Later, once the duo arrive at the bowling tournament, plenty of screen time is given to commentators Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel, who seem to be mostly doing sports color improv. All of this works, but it also means that Knuckles himself takes a backseat in his own show.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that this could have been due to budget constraints. Adam Pally being a goofball doesn’t cost as much as animating an alien echidna, and some of the moments with the main Sonic cast look noticeably less polished than their movie counterparts–particularly in animating their lip sync. This is a streaming TV show, after all, not a big-budget movie release, so that limitation may have informed the storytelling choices. And it’s not a bad choice, per se–again, Wade’s arc is interesting and enables a lot of good comedy–but it still sticks out.

Knuckles does have his own story, of sorts. The agents who serve as the primary antagonists are after his power, which raises the stakes and sets up occasional fight scenes. Knuckles’ own journey revolves around accepting Earth as his new home, after being trained from birth as a wandering warrior who never settles in one place. And we get some cute Easter eggs from the series, like a scene that features his glide ability or another where he gets his signature hat.

Similarly, not all of the movements in Wade’s journey feel particularly earned. A running plot element revolves around his collection of mix CDs, which is the impetus for frequent needle drops a la Guardians of the Galaxy. But when his zip-up case of CD-Rs is used to carry some of the emotional weight of his complicated relationship with his father, it just falls flat. (It’s hard to imagine this pompous, posh version of Cary Elwes even pretending to enjoy pop music with his dopey son.) And eventually, the family drama intertwines with the villain story in a way that strains credulity for everything that follows afterward.

Speaking of the villains, those are a particular weak spot for Knuckles. It’s perhaps unfair to expect anything to match Jim Carrey’s manic energy as Robotnik, but these bad guys are just utterly unmemorable. The big bad is a brilliant but brutal machinist (Rory McCann) who we intuit has some connection with Robotnik, while the two henchmen (Kid Cudi and Ellie Taylor) are disgruntled agents looking for a payday. Their performances are serviceable but never given a chance to shine as anything more than Knuckles-fodder, even relegating their motives to a single exposition dump where they just explain their backstories to one another in turn.

This all leads to a final battle between Knuckles and the machinist, which feels like a nice ending for Wade but is underbaked in every other way. The deus ex machina that resolves the problem is rote, and the villain is dispatched relatively quickly. Plus by this point we had already seen Wade deal with the major obstacles in his life, so the big battle felt perfunctory, to wrap up loose ends.

As a continuation of the Sonic the Hedgehog cinematic universe, Knuckles feels slight. It doesn’t forward the story in any notable way, there aren’t any future-facing Easter eggs or Keanu cameos that I spotted, and Knuckles himself doesn’t have much of an arc. He just feels a little more comfortable calling Earth his home. As a generally family-friendly buddy comedy about a lovable loser who gains some confidence, though, Knuckles works pretty well. It goes down smooth and provides some laughs with occasional not-too-violent fight scenes, but it neither attempts nor succeeds in delivering anything more.

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