Series Premiere review — The Secret Circle, “Pilot”

The Secret Circle is going to be around for a long time. With Kevin Williamson’s name on it and a cushy timeslot behind The Vampire Diaries, there is just no way this series isn’t a “CW-sized” hit. I am totally fine with this and I will certainly be watching Secret Circle all season. However, because of its connection to Williamson and The Vampire Diaries, it is hard not to point out the glaring issues Secret Circle has in its pilot episode.

I tweeted this last night as I was watching the pilot on iTunes, but Secret Circle feels like Vampire Diaries, minus any charismatic actors or real sex appeal. That’s sort of a weird and shallow statement, but witches are inherently less exciting than vampires and werewolves so it might have been nice to have some truly hunky-looking dudes and super-attractive gals around to help spice things up a bit. As it stands, this pilot feels full of actors who appear to be almost too young (and weirdly, too short) to be running around talking about witches, secret convents and whatever else. It’s like supernatural dress up on Halloween here. Series about high school students are always full of actors who are much older than the age they are playing and yet, when they work, the age doesn’t really matter. Sometimes people are too old – see a number of the people on the 90210 reboot – but most of the time, we can let it go. Secret Circle is the exact opposite. No offense to Thomas Dekker and Britt Robertson, but they aren’t Ian Somerhalder, Paul Wesley or Nina Dobrev. Sure, my analysis of actor sex appeal isn’t completely necessary, but the perceived age thing is and for some reason, this really messed with my mind as I watched the pilot.

That sort of “supernatural dress up” feeling extends to the whole episode, really. The story is efficiently told and hits all the rhythms and notes a pilot like this should and yet, it all feels very matter of fact. I don’t need to be shocked with the events of a pilot, especially one that does an admittedly solid job of setting up the universe, but you could explain the events of this episode in detail by just reading the series’ log line or probably even by just hearing “it’s a Kevin Williamson series about witches.” There’s no mystery here. We know how the first 10 episodes are going to play out. This is a good thing in many respects, as having a fully-formed story after the pilot is more than most of this season’s pilots can probably say. But it’s certainly CW supernatural paint-by-numbers.

This would probably be less obvious if it were not for the witch part. Vampire Diaries does some nice stuff with its witch Bonnie, but there’s a reason that she’s a supporting character primarily used as a plot device when something in the vampire or werewolf throwdowns get out of control. I like Bonnie a lot and she’s definitely more charming than anyone on this series, but I still wouldn’t want to watch a series just about her ahead of Vampire Diaries. Plus, TVD is smart enough to keep most of Bonnie’s powers in-check and usually strays away from chanting and all that nonsense. Secret Circle not only asks us to be interested in the clearly not-as-interesting witches, but also hopes that we’re OK with watching said witches chant and chant until they’re changing the weather patterns. It’s too much and too soon.

Or maybe it would be less obvious if everyone weren’t so brooding. I know that this sort of melodramatic, mopey vibe is par for the course with CW fare, but not only do the characters seem slightly drugged and miserable, the actors do as well. Phoebe Tonkin is the only one really reveling in the role she’s given as the bad girl Faye and she is playing it so differently than everyone else that it stands out too much. Robertson is capable of more and I’m hoping Dekker is. The sooner the series allows them to loosen up, the better.

The good news here is that if you separate Secret Circle from its quasi-cousin, it plays well enough. Setting up the premise was probably always going to be clumsy no matter how Andrew Miller and Williamson and approach it and even still, there is something to be said for crafting a solid roadmap for where things are headed in just 41 minutes. The characters might not be that interesting or likable yet and the performances might still be awkward and raw, but the framework for a solid series is right there for the taking. The pilot and the following four or five episodes of The Vampire Diaries were all middling, obvious and plodding and the characters were overly-serious as well – and we know how that turned out. I still think this cast lacks the kind of charisma that everyone on TVD has and more or less had from the start (despite what the script gave them to do), but I am fully confident in Kevin Williamson’s ability to shape this series into a fast-paced thrill-ride that pairs well with The Vampire Diaries.

Other thoughts:

  • Gale Harold and Natasha Henstridge seemed just a little too tight in their roles as the obvious villains. I like both of them and I’m hoping their issues are not unlike the rest of the cast’s problems.
  • Although the storm Faye created looked dull, the CGI work in the raindrop sequence with Robertson and Dekker’s Cassie and Adam worked pretty well, even if I’d seen it 100 times since May. It sure feels like this pilot cost way more money to make than Ringer, which makes absolutely no sense.
  • However, this pilot was a bit too dreary for me. I like that they’re using the Pacific Northwest locales to their advantage, but it reached Killing-levels of blue hues in spots.
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