Twisted

Twisted makes its official debut tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern on ABC Family.

Twisted is the type of show you hate yourself for loving. Not in a guilty pleasure way—it’s far too well-executed to be a guilty pleasure, not to mention the phrase “guilty pleasure” has practically lost all meaning in this day and age—but in a way that you know there’s very little chance the resolution to all the mysteries laid out in the pilot is going to be as compelling as the promise of that resolution. But still, even if the ultimate resolution doesn’t turn out to be satisfying, Twisted is making a strong case for making up for it with the fun of the journey along the way.

Between Pretty Little Liars, The Lying Game, and now Twisted, Tuesday night on ABC Family is less-than-quietly building its brand as the destination for teenagers in peril, a sort of “Christopher Pike shoved into designer heels” adaptation for today’s generation. The wild success of Pretty Little Liars practically revitalized the entire network, a fact that seems particularly astounding when you consider the narrative of show has gotten so convoluted I basically shrug off any plot developments as necessary evils in the pursuit of watching likeable actresses deliver quips in crazy outfits. After The Lying Game only became a modest success (it currently sits in limbo, waiting on an additional episode order that looks less and less likely to come with each passing week), ABC Family is trying again to capitalize on Pretty Little Liars’ success with Twisted, a mystery series about a troubled boy’s reluctant return to his hometown after being in juvenile detention for murdering his aunt.

The troubled boy in question is Danny Desai (Avan Jogia), the sort of 16-year-old bad boy smartass of most teenage girls’ dreams. The town pariah even before his return, Danny’s every move is the subject of intense town curiosity (he’s even less-than-lovingly nicknamed “Socio” by the student body), and his return even ranks as the top story on the local news. The only people more concerned about Danny’s return than Danny are his childhood best friends Jo Masterson (Maddie Hasson) and Lacey Porter (Kylie Bunbury), whose presence at Danny’s house at the time of the murder forever changed them. These three people—once best of friends who became more like strangers bonded against their will by Danny’s mysterious, violent act—now must navigate their changing relationships upon Danny’s sudden return, while the truth behind what he did remains shrouded in mystery.

The pilot starts a bit rocky, in the midst of Jo’s nightmare flashing back to the moment where she and Lacey discovered what Danny had done. It’s an effective device in theory, setting the tone of the series as one with dread always lurking in the background, but the dialogue these poor child actors are given to deliver makes the scene stilted at best. Things start to pick up tremendously when our obvious point-of-view character Jo—a social outcast whose difficulty adjusting after the Danny incident involved a psychologist and a lot of flannel, combat boots, and beanies—gets to school and starts interacting with former best friend Lacey. Lacey took the opposite route after the Danny incident—ditching Jo and throwing herself hard into vapid popularity, getting in with the school mean girls, and dating the captain of the soccer team—but a nice, shared moment with Jo immediately prior to Danny’s return shows just how much of damaged kindred spirits they are. Danny’s actual return, though, is when the show finally feels like it is announcing what it wants to be. The slow-motion shot of him entering the hall, all students eyeing him like he’s a serial killer choosing his next victim, is great, as is the introduction of his actual personality as one closer to jokester than killer.

The complicated relationship between the three teens and the way Danny’s crime still echoes through all of their lives is by far the biggest strength of the pilot, and the show takes the interesting stance that the friends you had in your childhood might just know you better than anyone else possibly ever could. Both Jo and Lacey, initially resistant to even speaking to Danny, gradually show varying levels of letting him back into their lives, and the complicated ways this will likely evolve going forward is the most promising aspect of the show. The three lead actors are all quite winning and have a great, lived-in feel to their chemistry together, immediately selling both the tragedy of the situation and how much all of them coming together again could really be the healing they all need.

But, oh, that mystery! Twisted is billed first and foremost as a mystery series, but for most of the pilot the mystery is pleasantly used more as character shading and a nice underlying tone of dread, until an event happens that pushes it to the forefront in a way that has the potential to be troubling going forward. The mystery itself is basically Danny’s entire characterization—why he killed his aunt, why his father is presumed dead but his body was never found, why there are mysterious necklaces floating around town—all of these things are Danny at this point, and it’s this sort of thing that gives pause. Danny’s refusal to discuss anything surrounding his aunt’s death, doing so for concern he might put other people in danger if they knew, signals that everything the public knows about her murder is wrong. To the show’s credit, it does a good job of making you want the answers, but going forward Danny is going to need a better reason not to tell than “can’t; don’t want to” to keep things interesting.

Despite any concerns about the mystery’s long-term viability, there is enough good here to recommend sticking with Twisted to see how it develops. The show has already done a great job establishing the high school dynamics in a very short time—the highlight of this being a tense confrontation at a party and a particularly uncomfortable school assembly—and it would be greatly served by expanding this worldview to include the town. (Right now it feels a bit too Generic Canadaville, New England.) The casting of the young actors is pretty universally great, and the writing is at least two times sharper than either expected or necessary for a show of this ilk. But the pilot’s greatest success its ability to get you immediately invested in the central friendship between Jo, Lacey, and Danny. If the show can make the mystery that compelling, ABC Family might really have something special here.

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