(Episode by Andrew Miller)
The Secret Circle is the CW’s new Vampire Diaries, developed from an existing book series by L.J. Smith. It wears its influences on its sleeve and is nothing more than a standard piece of genre entertainment (the genre being teen fantasy), but it’s not laughably incompetent and the looming war of the aged versus the young, reminiscent of Game of Thrones if you’re in a generous mood, means it might be worth checking out.
First, the background. Every teen fantasy story starts with a “teen is special but doesn’t know it” — the teen here is Cassie, and the reason she’s special is because she’s a witch. Oops! Spoi– no, wait, not a spoiler at all. Every piece of marketing you’ve seen about the show has said that Cassie is a witch and will discover this fact in the pilot. Like TV always does, though, the show plays coy with the viewer, having other characters (the ones who do know they’re witches) talk around their powers to each other for the first two acts, not daring to spoil the surprise. The same surprise that’s been spoiled by six months of TV, magazine, and bus-stop advertising. That surprise.
Anyway! Cassie’s mom dies in the teaser, killed by a mysterious man using what’s very obviously magic — he strikes matches outside mom’s house and mom’s house catches fire. It’s actually quite a good teaser, creepy and tense even as you know exactly how it’s going to end.
So Cassie, orphan (we quickly find out that dad died when she was tiny), moves to a small Washington town (coughTwilightcough) where she’s greeted by a slew of creepers: mean-girl Faye is weird to her in school; gross blonde Nick tries to catch a glimpse of Cassie naked after a shower; drunk Ethan, father of cute-boy-who-stares-way-too-intently-at-school-Adam, tells Cassie that he loved her mother but she chose someone else. (Cassie tries to get a zing in — “how’d my father feel about that?” — but I’m not sure Britt Robertson can handle the zings. She’s doe-eyed and adorable, but after spending 42 minutes with her today, I hereby declare her no Sarah Michelle Gellar or Kristen Bell.)
Turns out everyone’s creepy because everyone in town is a witch!
I lied again. Presumably not everyone is a witch, but in the pilot, we meet the following characters: Cassie; Cassie’s mom; Adam; Adam’s dad, Ethan; Diana (the good girl); Diana’s dad, Charles; Faye (bad girl); Faye’s mom, Dawn (also school principal); Melissa (Faye’s sidekick, no personality at all, and I had to look up her name on Wikipedia — she’s a nontentity so far, which is unfortunate because she appears to be the only person in town who’s not white); Nick (creepy neighbor); and Jane (grandma). Every single one of these characters is a witch. We meet exactly zero characters in this admittedly small town who are normal people with no powers. You would be forgiven for wondering in the first three acts of the show whether the advertising had understated things and that Cassie was actually moving to an entire town of superfolks. (If this sounds intriguing, I’d like to direct you to Gail Simone’s “Welcome to Serenity.”)
So that’s your setup. Who plays these people? The casting department, let me tell you, did a bang-up job putting a grab-bag of Types in the show. Britt Robertson as Cassie is small and blonde and very Hayden Panettiere. Thomas Dekker, the biggest name among the kids for his past roles in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Heroes (and with indie cred for his lead role in Gregg Araki’s Kaboom), plays Adam with bordering-on-excessive smolder, doing the best Paul Wesley (the good brother in Vampire Diaries) he possibly can. Phoebe Tonkin as Faye has skinny-cleavage, dark hair, and a bad attitude — Megan Fox is on the phone with her attorney as we speak. And Shelley Hennig as Diana is about as Felicia Day as you can get without snagging the genuine article. (Calling it now: Day will show up in a flashback as Diana’s mom by mid-season two.)
The major weakness of the pilot, putting aside my quibbles with TV tropes like on-the-nose dialogue, push-up bras under pajamas, and the entire effects budget being blown on one (admittedly cool) forest scene, is that Cassie has no story. This is her show, obviously — when your mom gets killed within two minutes of the opening credits, you are the protagonist — so what is her goal? What have the writers set out for her to accomplish over the course of the season or many seasons?
Think about Buffy. She finds out in the pilot that she is a vampire slayer and has awesome powers. So far so good — Cassie finds out that she’s a witch with awesome powers. But Buffy additionally finds out that she has an obligation to use those powers to keep her friends, her town, and the world safe from the forces of darkness. And she has a Watcher and friends who are going to keep her on-task. I don’t actually remember whether the pilot of Buffy set out the first season’s arc (it probably did), but it certainly gave us knowledge of what we were in for every week: monsters would happen and Buffy would defeat them.
After watching the pilot of The Secret Circle, I have no idea what episode two will look like, much less episode seven or thirteen. It won’t give away much to tell you that the parents in town, witches themselves, as I said, are plotting something that involves the kids, and the kids don’t know it. But how is this going to work? Will there be monsters? Is every week going to involve the kids trying a new spell that somehow rebounds and causes them to have to work out how to fix it in a way that shows them who they really are inside?
The kids apparently want to learn how to use their powers for their own sake (although only one, Faye, displays any personal investment in this — the rest all seem to be along for the witchy ride), but that’s not good enough for compelling television. This episode got boring as it went on for a very identifiable reason: Cassie has no problem to solve. If your plan for a TV show is to have your protagonist mope around town wondering where her grandmother is and why it’s raining like the dickens, you’ve got yourself something that will completely fail to hold interest.
All that said, because I’ve gotten soft in my old age, I’ll give the show one more episode. Pilots are a rough thing to judge a show on. This pilot failed on its own merits, both in setting up what the season will be and presenting a compelling episode of television by itself, but there is enough here, particularly with the generational battle that’s at the heart of so many TV shows being in this program explicit and potentially violent, that I’ll check back in next week to see where things have gone.
P.S. Natasha Henstridge plays the principal.
P.P.S. The ratings were ok.
EDIT: Embarrassingly, I screwed up on Buffy. The show, as my wife pointedly reminded me, is not a reboot of the movie, but a sequel — Buffy shows up in Sunnydale already the Slayer, knowing full well what her powers and duties are. The larger point (that the events of episodes two through twenty-two of The Secret Circle are entirely obscure after watching the pilot, that Cassie has no story) remains, and the contrast to Buffy still exists, but that’s a pretty major detail I missed. I hereby resign from the Buffy Fandom Club until I earn my way back in.