Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. With the start of the new fall season, 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.
After living in the shadow of vampires and werewolves for too long, witchcraft is getting its TV hour back. Sleepy Hollow has a regular character who’s a witch (albeit a long-dead one who lives in some sort of weird, dreamlike netherworld). The next season of American Horror Story is all about a coven in New Orleans. And now Lifetime has picked up a whole series about a family of immortal witches abruptly targeted by an unknown enemy and forced to close ranks to protect both themselves and their friends.
Witches Of East End is based on a novel by Melissa De La Cruz, but it’s made one key change to the source material. Where the original featured a powerful mama witch letting her daughters in on the secret of their witchy heritage from an early age, the series sees the daughters in the dark, even though they’re approaching the prime magical potency of their mid-20s. That magical potency mostly reveals itself unintentionally, like the flames that shoot up when one daughter kisses an illicit lover she first saw in her dreams. It is, in other words, not just a series about witches and witchcraft, but one about sexy witches and witchcraft.
There are worse choices to bring this to the small screen than Maggie Friedman, who made a serviceable (and very similar) attempt to turn John Updike’s Witches Of Eastwick into a TV show a few years back. Friedman’s not bad at undercutting dark tension with melodramatic nonsense and the occasional well-placed quip. What she’s not especially good at are pacing and general insanity. The current crop of supernatural dramas seems to take its cues from the Ryan Murphy-patented wackiness going on over at American Horror Story, blitzing past plot points at reckless speeds while laughing at the smears of narrative coherency they leave behind. Friedman takes a stab at this—there’s more plot progression in the pilot of Witches than there was in the whole of Eastwick—but this pilot also feels like it has absolutely no idea of just how much story to tell or where it might go in episode two. The pilot feels like chapter one of a novel. That works for some shows, but on others, it just feels like a mess. This is one of the messes.
Holding everything together—sort of—is Julia Ormond as the mother witch. There’s an interesting idea at the center of her character: She’s been cursed to a life of immortality, but she will continually give birth to her two daughters, only to see them die horribly because of witchcraft and magic. This has happened to her dozens, if not hundreds, of times over the centuries, and it results in some strong material for Ormond to play, particularly when she’s agonizing about telling her daughters that they’re witches. There’s a neat element of predestination to it that could work, especially when Mädchen Amick drops in as Ormond’s sister, dealing with her own horrible curse. Immortal beings are only interesting as protagonists when their lives feel like a fate worse than death. Witches very nearly manages that trick.
Unfortunately, the choice to keep Jenna Dewan-Tatum and Rachel Boston out of the loop sinks the show almost irreparably. The two sisters are on a show about witches, so it’s dramatically inherent that they don’t yet know they have powers—but just having Ormond come out and tell them would sink a potentially powerful moment in her character arc, the sort of thing that requires buildup. Friedman tries to find some sort of middle ground between these two approaches, and it’s never satisfying.
The rest of the show is the usual collection of supernatural horseshit. There’s a love triangle that involves Dewan-Tatum, her fiancé, and her fiancé’s brother (whom she first met in a dream) that feels like the most perfunctory example of this particular storyline ever constructed. There’s a villain whose motives remain poorly explained and mysterious to a fault, in a way that actively hurts the tension of the pilot. There are fitful attempts to make this a “spell of the week” show, particularly with Boston, who doesn’t know she’s a witch and is skeptical about the existence of witchcraft. But she also thinks it would be super fun to try out some spells, while cautioning that they’re not real—even if she thinks it would be cool if they were. (Her motivations change so quickly that the script can’t keep up.)
Ormond and Amick get some fun moments together, Boston is reliably winning, and Dewan-Tatum pouts effectively. The guys are attractive, but boring, leaving the romantic elements to feel horribly tacked on. In reality, that’s how a lot of the show feels: stitched together out of component parts in hopes something will take. Witches Of East End has the curious distinction of feeling at once underpopulated and way, way too busy. It’s less like chapter one of a satisfying novel and more like somebody took that novel, chopped it into pieces and then reassembled them at random.
Developed by: Maggie Friedman, from the novel by Melissa De La Cruz
Starring: Julia Ormond, Jenna Dewan-Tatum, Rachel Boston, Eric Winter
Debuting: Sunday at 10 p.m. Eastern on Lifetime
Format: Hour-long, supernatural drama
Pilot watched for review