Knuckles Show Review – A Low-Stakes Climb

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The live-action Sonic the Hedgehog movie series that started in 2020 has delivered entertaining adventures starring everybody's favorite Blue Blur and his ever-growing stable of friends. One of the highlights of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was Knuckles, voiced by Idris Elba. The fish-out-of-water gags and his strict adherence to the echidna warrior code, which is in stark contrast to Sonic's fun-loving personality, made for an enjoyable dynamic within the cast of characters. Knuckles, the new six-episode streaming show on Paramount Plus, tries to carry forward that dynamic. However, thanks to low stakes, a palpable disconnect from the larger Sonic story, and too much emphasis on the human characters in the world, it falls short of the heights reached by the two theatrical films.

Warning: While I try to remain as spoiler-free as possible, some aspects of the narrative and characters are mentioned throughout this article.

This spin-off series follows Knuckles as he trains Wade Whipple (Adam Pally), the goofy police officer from the first two Sonic films, in the way of the echidna warrior. Though Wade is fine as comic relief in the films, I often struggled with placing so many of the emotional stakes at the feet of this character. This becomes particularly true once his family joins the show. The weakest parts of the Sonic movies are the scenes featuring the human characters. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 appeared to learn that lesson, as it sent many of the main humans away on a trip, but the inverse is true in Knuckles; on multiple occasions, I wondered why we were focusing so much on the family drama of Wade instead of what Knuckles was up to off-screen.

The family storyline that consumes much of the latter portions of the show can be compelling in bursts, but it almost feels like an entirely different show altogether. The show does very little to inform viewers why we should care about these characters aside from the fact that they're related to Wade. The mother character (Stockard Channing) is the most likable of the bunch, particularly when the other major players feel like cartoonish caricatures of sitcom archetypes – even more so than in the movies. Thankfully, when the titular character is on screen, it's another strong performance by Elba. I'm also happy that much of the CGI of the Knuckles character looks great, particularly when in fights.

The action sequences of Knuckles are the highlight. One scene, in particular, takes place in a kitchen and benefits from crafty camera work and a simulated single-take effect. The action scenes are well-paced throughout the six-episode season, but they do shine a light on one of the most significant shortcomings the Sonic franchise must overcome if it hopes to expand out in spin-off series such as this: Sonic's gallery of enemies just isn't that deep. Having the main antagonists of Knuckles be two rogue agents of GUN and a guy who used to work for Dr. Robotnik demonstrates this in irreconcilable ways. Sure, we're promised Shadow in Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and we could still get the introduction of characters like Metal Sonic or Chaos in future media, but this series shows that the pool is pretty shallow.

Installing low-profile villains for the franchise's first streaming series could be forgiven if they made their mark, but they feel like retreads of what Dr. Robotnik was trying to accomplish in the first movie; their entire motivation is to capture Knuckles to steal his power. Ellie Taylor and Kid Cudi deliver fine performances as the rogue GUN agents, but the characters rarely serve as anything more than plot devices for the characters to progress on their personal journeys and foils in fight scenes. We do learn of their motivation later in the show, but at that point, I only cared about them because when they showed up, it usually meant an action scene was coming.

When you aren't watching a fight sequence play out, you're usually enduring a joke shotgun blast with a relatively low hit rate. The seasoned comedic delivery of actors like Adam Pally, Paul Scheer, and Cary Elwes do wonders for some of the jokes on offer in Knuckles, but it's often not enough to keep the momentum up and running. Instead, in the times when Knuckles wasn't on screen, I was more enthralled by the heartfelt moments, which, much like the humor, have a relatively low success ratio. Much of the family dynamics are framed around an absurd bowling tournament that apes the vibe and storyline of Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story a little too closely, making it difficult to connect to the characters or the overarching narrative. Knuckles feels noncommittal when it comes to the tone it's going for. While it's not impossible to be an action-comedy series with sentimental moments, it's a trickier line to walk than Knuckles can accomplish.

And it would all be forgiven if the story felt essential – or even consequential – to the world of the Sonic series. But instead, having not yet seen Sonic the Hedgehog 3, I can't help but feel that Knuckles has that sitcom quality where everything ends up right where it started. Sure, there's a journey with some sentimentality, minor character development, funny gags, small Easter eggs, and enjoyable action scenes, but if someone asked if they needed to watch Knuckles before going to see Sonic the Hedgehog 3 when it arrives in theaters this December, I'd be hard pressed to find a narrative reason to answer them in the affirmative.

That's perhaps Knuckles' biggest flaw: Despite its sometimes fun and heartfelt moments, it feels entirely inessential. Video game adaptations have an outdated reputation for being bad. Knuckles isn't outright bad, but when compared to its contemporaries like Fallout, The Last of Us, Twisted Metal, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, and even Sonic the Hedgehog 2, it feels like a video game adaptation from a bygone era.

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