Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
The worst thing trash TV can be is boring. In a fall that overindulged on craziness—turning Sleepy Hollow into a huge hit and giving us the wacky wonders of Reign—being boring is suicide for any show aiming to keep audiences thrilled by unleashing unlikely plot twists. Worse yet is to be a spinoff of the reliably nuts Pretty Little Liars by taking a parent show’s love of cheesy melodrama and wedding it to a structure that allows for supernatural things to happen, but is still boring.
Yet Ravenswood, at least in pilot form, is dreadfully dreary. And it all seems vaguely tasteful, as if the producers watched a bunch of Dark Shadows at half speed and said, “Yes. More like that.” Pretty Little Liars gets by on the appeal of its main cast and its ability to simultaneously gasp along with and wink at its audience. Ravenswood takes one of that show’s less intriguing characters and gives him a backstory that’s intoned in a slow-moving opening sequence where he and the female lead talk lugubriously about how they found pictures of dead people who look just like them, all while wandering around, staring at nothing in particular, like they’re in the opening QuickTime movie from one of the Myst sequels. It sets up the tone going forward: This is a show that forgot to be stupid.
Tyler Blackburn is the actor being spun off here, bringing his generic bad boy from Pretty Little Liars’ Rosewood to Ravenswood, a town that never met a piece of Halloween clip art it couldn’t ape. Blackburn was rarely all that compelling on Pretty Little Liars, but he was hunky, and that more or less was enough to get by when the show needed him to do things. That serves him less well here, when he discovers he’s at the center of a century-old mystery involving ghosts and terrifying curses and that he’s perhaps been drawn back to Ravenswood to fulfill his destiny. It’s the kind of part that requires a real go-getter, but Blackburn mopes around talking about how he can’t leave town until he’s gotten to the bottom of this mystery before sitting around looking for excuses to take off his shirt.
Better off is female lead Nicole Gale Anderson, playing a runaway with a similar connection to Ravenswood, and her uncle Steven Cabral, who lives there and has the last name of Collins—because, again, the producers have seen Dark Shadows. Anderson, at least, is vaguely feisty in the face of a ghostly conspiracy that could potentially end her life. The same goes for Britne Oldford—known to genre TV fans for her work in the second season of American Horror Story—who’s given the thankless Willow Rosenberg role and does her level best with it.
To be sure, Pretty Little Liars had a disastrous pilot, and it’s not a good show. But it learned early on in its run that the only way to operate was to toss caution and logic to the wind before diving into plot twist after plot twist. It’s possible Ravenswood will realize the same soon enough, and the pilot will be a distant, slow-moving memory. The final five minutes of the episode, while not tremendous, have some spark to them and set up some intriguing central conflicts for the series going forward (even with a cliffhanger seemingly designed to exploit the gullibility of the show’s target teenage audience). And it’s not as if this show is all bad. Some of the side actors—particularly Cabral and Meg Foster as his live-in servant of sorts—are having fun chewing scenery, and there’s at least one solid laugh line.
But the bulk of the episode feels like the opening chapters of a young adult novel that takes its sweet time in getting going. That was excusable on Pretty Little Liars, which was based on a young-adult novel, but it makes less sense on a show where the creators—Joseph Dougherty, Oliver Goldstick, and I. Marlene King—have all logged time on the better, crazier version of the show that rose out of that pilot’s ashes. Starting slow might work if the audience was meant to care about these characters, but it’s just not. They’re just there so the narrative has someone to give ghostly warnings to and get attacked by inanimate objects while shirtless. There’s enough spooky and goofy stuff going on here to placate the Pretty Little Liars faithful, but it seems unlikely to win any new converts.
Created by: Joseph Dougherty, Oliver Goldstick, I. Marlene King
Starring: Tyler Blackburn, Nicole Anderson, Britne Oldford, Brett Dier
Debuts: Wednesday at 9 p.m. Eastern on ABC Family
Format: Hour-long supernatural teen soap
Pilot watched for review