The fictional Archer School Of Ballet, the centerpiece of Netflix’s new dramatic thriller Tiny Pretty Things, is a world-renowned institution where the industry’s most promising stars are built from the ground up. Landing a highly coveted spot is no easy task, and maintaining one’s place at the barre after getting into the Chicago-based school is somehow even harder. Any ballet hopeful with a modicum of ambition would kill for the chance to be an Archer protégé. So what makes this ballet school any different than the host of schools that came before it? Not much, aside from the fact that at least one Archer pupil is actually willing to literally kill for glory, hence ballerina Cassie Shore’s untimely slip from the school’s roof.
Based on the popular YA novel by Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra, Tiny Pretty Things follows the lives of various young dancers who try to maintain their focus on their craft while enduring a serious investigation—one that the school’s highest-ranking administrator would rather sweep under the rug. Honestly, it’s not too difficult to forget entirely about the pursuit of justice for Archer’s much-maligned student because there is simply so much going on: Affairs, sex, profoundly inappropriate relations between staff and underage students, more sex, a complex trafficking ring, and, dear god, a preponderance of sex. Interspersed dance scenes offer small moments of reprieve and a chance for the cast of trained performers to showcase their skills, but Michael MacLennan’s series seems to prioritize sex appeal above all else, including strong character development, authentic emotion, and a cohesive execution of multiple plot lines.
We enter the bustling halls of Archer with Nevaeh Stroyer (Kylie Jefferson), a young Black dancer from Inglewood, California. At first, her acceptance and full-ride scholarship are mysteries, as her application was previously rejected. But it doesn’t take long to piece together the circumstances surrounding her change in fortune: A lingering scandal involving a now-comatose student is quickly sullying the good Archer name and Madame Monique Dubois (Lauren Holly) is clawing at any shred of good will to repair the school’s image, including “helping a girl escape her dead-end life in Compton,” which she’s quick to tell the swarm of reporters within minutes of Nevaeh’s arrival. But before the young arrival can totally recover from that moment of thinly veiled racism, she learns that she’s been summoned to replace Cassie. “Who’s Cassie Shore,” Nevaeh asks—the question of the hour. Who is Cassie, why was she pushed off of the school’s roof, and whodunnit?
But there’s no time to dwell on insignificant matters like attempted homicide, because before long, Nevaeh’s elite education begins. Immediately, she is met with an almost class-wide coldness that is played to a nearly comical extent and is pervasive throughout the 10-episode season. It’s such a common dynamic in any dramatic ballet story that it barely raises any hackles, falling in line with well-worn tropes involving mean, overly competitive prima ballerinas who have no interest in befriending a new face if it threatens their prominence. The thing that ultimately sets it apart and nets more confusion than anything else is the constantly changing dynamic between Nevaeh and the students, which switches back and forth with so little explanation that any connection, or lack thereof, seems fleeting.
Reigning queen bee Bette (Casimere Jollette), for instance, often flits from evilly conspiring against her classmates—especially when it comes to Nevaeh and struggling hopeful June Park (Daniela Norman)—to helping them through moments of crisis. She comes close to explaining away the fluctuating bitchiness in episode seven, “Catch And Release”: “If it’s dance, me against them, I consider it a full-on war. But outside of the studio, I show up.” That said, nothing else throughout the series hints toward a truly complex personality, so her constant oscillating feels more like a convenient element of whatever the scene calls for in that moment. The same can be said about most of the relationships, which form and combust with so little provocation outside of perpetual horniness that they mostly seem randomized. But it’s always sexy! That’s one bit of consistency you can bet on.
The only person who is really afforded an interesting journey is June, whose position within the school remains in flux. She is only able to pursue actual stability when she decides to emancipate herself from her overbearing mother. Although Nevaeh comes from very humble means and must endure a corrupt school system with little support beyond her friend, Shane (Brennan Clost), the more compelling story of survival is granted to a wealthy girl who must now resort to unfathomable means, like getting a job. To her credit, June is up for the task and shows the most growth out of anyone. But much like the rest of the cast, Norman often comes across as an overwrought caricature instead of a real human being. It’s such a blanket issue throughout the production that it suggests lackluster direction more than a lack of acting ability.
Some of this would be forgivable if we had a truly meaty mystery at the story’s center, but Cassie’s near death and the few question marks surrounding it tend to fall by the wayside. The only thing that anchors her story is the near-omniscient presence of an overly invested cop, Isabel Cruz (Jess Salgueiro), who has somehow attached her own personal trauma to this particular tragedy. Even more perplexing than Officer Cruz’s devotion to the case (and only this case, as she is always around, whether in uniform or plain clothes) is Nevaeh’s ultimate cooperation with her, as her brother was shot in the spine by police and nearly killed. It’s a detail that the show approaches timidly—possibly for the sake of “timeliness”—but handles as sloppily as it does statutory rape, trafficking, sexuality, sexual assault, and just about anything else that is tied to real-life sociopolitical matters and not unfettered scandal. It’s jarring, and in more equipped hands, these matters would be managed with more care. Here, they’re plot devices that feed lesser drama. What’s more, we’re left to flounder in so much melodrama that watching for anything other than weightless entertainment becomes a chore.
It’s a shame that all of this tends to overshadow some of the truly gorgeous dancing or the potentially interesting characters, like Cassie, who makes for an imperfect victim with her own unflappable ambition. More importantly, the show doesn’t improve upon or even live up to Clayton and Charaipotra’s captivating writing. Tiny Pretty Things might be good for a bit of escapism, but the sex, scandal, and litany of sex scandals aren’t enough to make it a quality watch.