The Secret Circle: “Pilot”
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The Secret Circle: “Pilot”

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The Secret Circle

“Pilot”

Season 1, Episode 1

This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Katherine Miller, who will be reviewing the series week to week, and Rowan Kaiser look at The Secret Circle.

The Secret Circle debuts tonight on The CW at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Katherine: When I evangelize for The Vampire Diaries to friends, I build up to this one statement: There’s an episode with three stabbings, and you won’t see any of them coming.

God, let’s hope that happens to The Secret Circle

Right now, the show—also based on a YA series by Vampire Diaries author L.J. Smith and adapted by Kevin Williamson—isn’t exactly a revolution in suspense. The most startling moment of the pilot comes when somebody’s grandmother pops her head in to say goodnight. (She really does come out of nowhere.)

But Vampire Diaries was not the Vampire Diaries of surprise stabbings at first, either, and Circle is not without promise. Vampire Diariespilot was also clunky, and suffered from a slight Bella Swan’s “Jar Of Hearts” tone that Secret Circle shares.

The quick-shot premise is familiar for the genre: Tragic circumstances force Cassie Blake (Britt Robertson, in a series of truly unfortunate T-shirts) to move from California and into her grandmother’s home in Chance Harbor, Wash. Strange happenings ensue at school and at home, until it is revealed to Cassie that she’s a witch.

And Cassie more or less digests that news like a herpes diagnosis.

That kind of hilarious reaction of abject horror, rather than teenage cynicism, is the meeting point for Secret Circle’s three potential trajectories. The show could become, much like its sort-of-sister-show, all plot and machinations, a battle between good and evil—or at least a decent coming of age drama. It could also become an exercise in unintentional comedy (there is a lot of “Humans do not interact that way” here). Or it could become another Dawson’s Creek by way of Twilight. I’d prefer the first, but I could settle for the second. I mean, at one point, the high-school principal tells Cassie she had a [pause, small smile] special relationship with Cassie’s mother. Option number two is on the table.

The promising news for a quality future: All of the leads seem eager and willing.

The pilot largely does a cursory examination of the witches and their circle’s dynamics, centering on the four leads: Cassie, of course; brooding but responsible Adam (Thomas Dekker); his girlfriend, Diana (Shelly Hennig); and bad girl Faye (Phoebe Tonkin). Two other regulars, Nick (Louis Hunter) and Melissa (Jessica Parker Kennedy), appear as well, but say about four words. Dekker and Robertson are both very capable and have a sulky kind of chemistry (again, Dawson’s by way of Twilight), and Hennig—who’s a lot more attractive in real life than she looks in the pilot—has a solid Model U.N. treasurer vibe (kind of a poor man’s Anna Kendrick) as Diana. 

Tonkin’s the standout of the four, though. She’s loose, she manages to talk about the supernatural stuff naturally (an underrated quality), and she sells the only intentional laugh lines of the episode. Tonkin also has to repeat a lot of things that humans have said, but never in the isolated context that she must, including delivering one of Regina George from Mean Girls’ lines perfectly straight or whipping around in a rain storm and screaming, “IT’S BEAUTIFUL.” 

These bon mots aside, the biggest issue of the moment for Circle, however: The magic is kind of boring.

This is one area where having Vampire Diaries around is bad news for the show. On that show, the witches play a supporting, intermediary role. They come to the aid of or cause problems for assorted vampires and werewolves when convenient to the plot. Katerina Graham’s Bonnie is great when you need her and able to spend two sweeps episodes shacked up in a Restoration Hardware, researching spells offscreen when you don’t.

In Chance Harbor, obviously, that won’t work. And it’s not working entirely in the pilot. 

The pilot is shackled with the task of proving magic exists to Cassie, but it relies on some weak effects to do that and doesn’t generate much suspense. We actually get a slow motion shot of one character, having drunk from an unyielding and cascading waterfall of witchcraft power, turning off the lights on two sailboats. Now she’ll be able to string Christmas lights from hard-to-reach outlets and turn them off from bed! High-school baseball games end when she says they do! This is not to say these kind of powers totally blow; it’s easy to imagine a situation in which the ability to turn out the lights—or streetlights, or flashlights—could make for effective suspense, if properly timed. It’s just not used that way in the pilot. But at least this thrilling Thomas Edison magic looks believable; some of the other, splashier effects skew cheap and do not.

It’s forgivable in the pilot because it’s magic’s night out or whatever for Cassie’s benefit, but going forward, this will become important: Timing and believability make the difference when it comes supernatural elements. Right now, there’s too much power, too soon, and with too much weak CGI. 

The producers have said they’ll dispense with a lot of this introduction to magic pretty quickly and move into good versus evil territory, which is apparently the main thrust of the book series. There are basic sketches of a mystery developing—somebody went to great lengths to get Cassie in Chance Harbor doing witch things, and it has something to do with the previous generation of witches—but not enough to know where Circle’s really headed. Still, it looks tentatively all right. Just as long as it’s not headed to Dawson’s Creek by way of Twilight.

Rowan: The Secret Circle’s pilot is slick. This is its biggest strength. More than any other pilot I saw this summer, I know what The Secret Circle is about and will be about. I can guess what its seventh episode or season finale will look and feel like. It introduces its main characters, conflicts, and its back-story efficiently, especially for a speculative-fiction story. And, in the most important aspect of a pilot, I found myself really wanting to know what happens next.

But it’s that slickness that also makes The Secret Circle’s pilot offputting. The efficiency in introducing characters and setting works, but it also feels like these are just pieces in a puzzle. The Secret Circle is in many ways a sister story to The Vampire Diaries, and it feels like a paint-by-numbers. Instead of vampires, we have witches. Instead of this actor, we have that actor. Toss in a bunch of generically attractive young white actors for fans to crush on and play relationship musical chairs with, and voilà! CW cash cow!

But that’s my cynical side talking. The Secret Circle does what it needs to do. And there are still a few rough edges. The witchcraft itself, although well-filmed, seems to rely on really awkward-sounding phrases. (Would it kill you to do a couplet?) And the lead character, Cassie, seems to exist just to look pretty and vaguely worried—although the actress, Britt Robertson, apparently quipped with the best on Life Unexpected. But these are small quibbles. This show could really work well, and even if not, it should still be eminently watchable.