Fantastic Fest Review: Terry Teo Starring Kahn West


A Kiwi Encyclopedia Brown

Do a Google search for Terry Teo and the first things to pop up are websites where you can watch the latest Terry Teo episodes online at TVNZ OnDemand. That’s right. At the ultimate genre festival in the U.S. in a town that likes to keep things weird, they are showcasing the likes of Starz’s Ash vs. the Evil Dead and HBO’s Westworld. Under the radar is Terry Teo, an action-adventure comedy series that is a little bit like an urban Tintin. That’s how it was introduced at the festival, anyway. Though judging by the one sentence synopsis on IMDB – “a savvy teenager uses his street smarts to solve crimes” – it sounds like Veronica Mars. You know, if Veronica was a Kiwi of Polynesian descent. Oh, and a boy.

A creation of New Zealand authors Bob Kerr and Stephen Ballentyne in the early 1980s, Terry Teo was a successful comic that reached cult status. Now it has had a revival thanks to Gerald Johnstone, whose last project, Housebound, had its roots planted in the horror genre. Regardless if you’re familiar with the comics or the ’80s children’s television series it spawned is irrelevant. Within the first minute you’ll know if you are with Team Teo. Starting out as a teenage cat burglar, Terry takes off his shoes before casing the joint. No need to be disrespectful to the place he’s about to rob. Totally self-aware and full of wisecrack remarks, and the occasional fourth-wall break, Teo switches from burglary to crime-fighting when his estranged cop father is killed by local gangsters. Now, with the help of his martial arts sister and his friends, Terry uses his powers for good, living up to the Teo namesake in his own distinct way.

At the festival are four episodes of the revival’s six-part run (episodes 1, 2, 5, and 6 – all of which were written and directed by Johnstone). As someone who doesn’t watch much episodic television – I am at a movie festival, after all – the appeal of Terry Teo resides in fond childhood memories of Saturday morning television. Terry Teo could have easily been a member of Mystery, Inc. helping solve mysteries and unmask the villain each week.

Teo feels like a composite of the likes of a Hardy Boy and Encyclopedia Brown with the wit and charm of Ferris Bueller, able to get himself out of hairy situations, either through ingenuity or a little friendly assistance. Plus, how can you go wrong with pairing a teenage crime solver with his older, kung-fu fighting sister?

A large part of Terry Teo‘s success has to do with star Kahn West. As the titular hero, and in his first lead role, he’s a natural. Auditioning for the part with no clue who Terry Teo was, his parents were beyond ecstatic, recalling the character from their youth. Hard to forget something as cool as seeing a Maori teen ride a skateboard and solve crimes. And if West were bashful, you wouldn’t know it. You’d think he was like Terry 24/7.

Having been in television limbo on account of its subject matter – TVNZ (Television New Zealand) thought they were getting a G-rated show – Terry Teo‘s six episodes were put on TVNZ’s streaming service, the network believing the show to be too mature for younger viewers. Of course it’s going to be more mature – the first episode is titled “Terry and the Gunrunners” for Pete’s sake. What should have the criminals been running – Memory foam pillows? DVD players? Walkie-Talkies?

Hopefully, Terry Teo exists beyond the six episodes already produced. Each episode is a breezy 23 minutes with whip-cracking dialogue that recalls Gregory McDonald’s Fletch novels or Shane Black (The Nice Guys) screenplays. It’s as sugary as the milk at the bottom of a cereal bowl. Slurp it down and have yourself another bowl.

Writer and Director: Gerald Johnstone
Notable Cast: Kahn West, Hanna Tavita, Josh Thomson

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