Review: The Secret Circle, “Wake”

Now that The Secret Circle has aired six episodes, I thought it was time to do a little drop-in and see how the CW series is progressing. Checking in with a series a few episodes after the pilot is always a good choice, but it feels particularly applicable in this circumstance. It was around episode six where Kevin Williamson’s Vampire Diaries blasted out of its plodding, slow and gloomy start and sped down the insane road that it is still on two seasons later (and going faster than ever). The Secret Circle has fallen victim to many of the same problems that plagued the early episodes of The Vampire Diaries, so it really makes sense to do a little evaluation and comparison at this juncture.

Although there are hints that Secret Circle is poking around some interesting, complex stories – particularly in the aftermath of a main character Nick’s death in episode five, a trick that this series actually pulled faster than TVD did with Vicki – the series still hasn’t really gotten there yet. Tonight’s episode, “Wake,” introduces some new characters and features the most compelling mythology-related reveals thus far, but those moments are unfortunately few and far between. Circle has definitely improved since the pilot, just not as much as I wish it would.

The Secret Circle has two big problems, one of which can be easily fixed and the other the series’ creative team might have a little more difficulty overcoming in future episodes. Let’s start with the solvable issue first: This series is just so drab. Sure, tonight’s episode was all about the aftershocks of a main character’s death, but even before that, all these kids and their parents came off as miserable people suffering from seasonal affective disorder. Every conversation feels strained and somehow simultaneously over- and under-played. The directors and cinematographers are getting too carried away with the lush blues and grays of Canada. The whole affair is dark, thematically and visually and it is starting to drive me nuts.

Added all together, those elements make The Secret Circle come off as too self-serious than it probably should be. The Vampire Diaries’ world and its stakes feel real and the characters know they’re in danger, but that series also knows how to set back for a moment and let the characters either have a little fun or at least get to comment on the ridiculousness of their circumstances. The stakes in TVD are dramatically higher, but the overall atmosphere is somehow looser and less stuffy. I don’t want to flat-out blame the actors because it is very possible that the writing is simply staid and wooden, but none of them are particularly good either. There are moments where it seems like Phoebe Tonkin’s Faye or even the adult characters will get to break out and do something interesting, but the series quickly reigns it back in for obvious, stiff storytelling.

As I said though, this can be fixed. I don’t know how Williamson is splitting his attention, but I’d think that only a few weeks in the writers’ room could help shift the tonal balance away from suffocatingly bleak and towards a more manageable intensity that has at least a tinge of self-awareness. There are other good writers on this staff as well. And again, it took The Vampire Diaries a while to move away from the stuffiness as well, it’s just not happening as quickly on this series and I thought maybe Williamson would have learned a lesson or two from that prior experience.

Now, the worse news: The witches. I have nothing inherently against witches as characters. They’re fine and I’m perfectly willing to watch an entire series built around them. However, it is beginning to feel like that building a series around witches doesn’t work that well. I appreciate The Secret Circle’s attempts to make witches seem more dynamic by including the chanting and that kind of thing, but thus far, that or really anything else has completely worked. Bounding the circle was a smart step forward (as to keep the power, and thus the production budget, down), but the overall mythology of Circle isn’t that compelling – or at least isn’t being presented in a compelling fashion.

In the five post-pilot episodes, Secret Circle has quickly fallen into a predictable storytelling rut: Circle discovers a hazardous element/person from the town or their respective families’ pasts, that element/person puts a few people in danger for a few moments and then is squashed without a substantial amount of real information found. The family books aren’t that interesting (or at least the series isn’t ready for them to be), the talk about fate and destiny isn’t subtle and the plot points that are at least somewhat intriguing (demons, witch hunters), seem ripped from other, better stories.

Look, I don’t expect a series like this to reinvent the wheel or be completely fantastic in episode six, but there isn’t a whole lot to hold on to yet with Secret Circle and when you combine the bleakness with the narrative issues, my concern level raises. And again, I’m not sure what’s really to blame here. Is it possible that stories with witches at the center just don’t work or at least don’t work well? Maybe. Is it possible that this writing stuff just hasn’t figured it out? Probably.

“Wake” is, nevertheless, a step in the right direction. It still gets bogged down in the plodding nature and the self-seriousness, but at least forward momentum is there and the pace is starting to quicken. Killing Nick was a solid twist and I did like the introduction of his brooding, mysterious, much more attractive older brother. I’m not quite sure what the heck a witch hunter is or if they will be intriguing, but the characters need a more tangible threat to deal with on a weekly basis. Based on the previews, it looks like maybe next week’s episode will the one to help The Secret Circle break out. Let’s hope.

Other thoughts:

  • I know I knocked the actors just a bit, but I want to be clear: No one is emphatically bad or especially good. They’re just sort of trapped in lame rhythms right now.
  • The chanting in the score and theme song still freak me out. That gives the series more atmosphere than just about anything else.
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