Robert Browning, who observed “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” would not have lasted very long running a broadcast television network.
Sure, it’s easy to point to the huge risks that pay off hugely and change the fate of TV networks. A singing competition in which a British guy nobody has heard of insults the talentless? Airing in the summer? Crazy. A drama about plane crash survivors on an island with weird things in the woods? In the same season as you’re airing a comedic soap opera narrated by a dead woman? Crazy.
But in most seasons and on most networks, “dice-rolling” usually takes a backseat to “managed risk.” And this is even the case in circumstances where you’d think wild gambling might be the order of the day.
The CW did a little gambling with “Ringer” and the results weren’t overwhelmingly successful, unless you think that an audience of 2.7 million viewers against zero scripted competition is likely going to hold up in Week 2, especially given reviews that I’ll generously call “mixed.”
And I guess The CW is even gambling a tiny bit on “Hart of Dixie,” banking on another Old WB-style dramedy after similar offerings like “Privileged” and “Life Unexpected” had only brief runs.
But nobody anywhere is going to classify the Thursday drama “The Secret Circle” as a gamble.
Thursday 9 p.m. is one of TV’s most crowded time slots, but on The CW, it’s also the time slot after the network’s biggest hit, “The Vampire Diaries.” After giving “The Vampire Diaries” variably compatible lead-outs in “Supernatural” and then “Nikita” the past two seasons, The CW’s approach this fall has been to put fish in a barrel and load up a rifle.
“The Secret Circle” comes from “Vampire Diaries” author LJ Smith and it has been adapted by “Vampire Diaries” producer Kevin Williamson. And although the star-making promotional legwork didn’t necessarily pay off for Britt Robertson on “Life Unexpected,” The CW is hoping that it at least laid the groundwork for a full-scale breakout with “Secret Circle.”
There are many ways to design a show and “The Secret Circle” feels like it was developed with compatibility as a higher priority than creativity. But there are worse things than being compatible with what is The CW’s most popular and also best series. “The Secret Circle” may be over-calculated and under-inspired, but that doesn’t necessarily mean “The Secret Circle” is bad. There’s something to be said for setting reasonable goals and largely succeeding, especially when there are plenty of shows that aspire to a good deal less and still fail.
More on “The Secret Circle” after the break…
One thing I often forget when expressing my unironic appreciation for the twisty, supernaturally diverse high drama of “The Vampire Diaries” is just how dreadful the “Vampire Diaries” pilot was.
Marcos Siega helmed that pilot and he continued with the show from those lean early days into better times, but it’s amusing to recall the ever-present black crows and the ubiquitous rolling fog that dominated that first installment, a corniness that compensated for how little fun anybody else seemed to be having. I called the pilot entertaining, but also described it as “a hammy gothic yarn for teens, a Hammer Studios version of ‘Dawson’s Creek.'”
In this department at the very least, “The Secret Circle” has an early leg-up.
Robertson plays Cassie, a teen whose life is turned upside down when her mother dies in a mighty suspicious fire. Cassie packs up and moves in with her grandma (Ashley Crow) in a picturesque harbor town in Washington. It takes almost no time for Cassie to realize that people in Chance Harbor are very forward. If she’s not being aggressively stalked, she’s being approached by strangers to talk about the way things were when her parents were growing up.
Perhaps rendered oblivious to creepy behavior by her grief, Cassie isn’t disturbed by the dude next door who likes to watch her getting changed for bed or when the proprietor at the local hangout spot tells her that her family and his family are connected in the stars. And even when her car spontaneously goes up in flames she’s shaken, but only temporarily. And when a kid she barely knows invites her to go wandering deep into the woods and they end up an abandoned warehouse and a group of intense teens come out of hiding and approach, her immediate instinct is guarded curiosity, rather than rampant Macing.
As you might guess from the title of the show, the kids have a secret to reveal: Cassie’s a witch! They’re all witches! And what’s more, her parents were witches and their parents were witches and with Cassie around, their circle (the secret one) is complete and their powers are amplified.
Of course, there’s some debate regarding what should be done with this new power, which is just one of the possible conflicts building in the “Secret Circle” pilot. You’ve also got the mysterious Charles (Gale Harold) skulking around in the background either killing people or threatening to kill people. And he’s not the only magic-wielding citizen over drinking age in Chance Harbor.
Genre fiction always has a choice regarding whether or not to have fun with the allegory that can come from stepping outside of the ordinary world. “The Vampire Diaries” has succeeded surprisingly well without a hint of allegory, while “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” used to lay it on thick. “The Secret Circle” is taking a little bit from each column. There are a couple good laughs that come from paralleling teen magical experimentation with either drug use or sexuality. Like when sensitive Adam (Thomas Dekker) returns from proving to Cassie that that she has powers (and nearly kissing her), his prissy witch girlfriend Diana (Shelley Hennig) gives an outraged, “You did magic with her?!?” as if they’d been off having sex under the bleachers. But other than a couple nods of that sort, magic and witchcraft at taken at face value.
That yields one of my “Secret Circle” concerns, because the witching teens are mighty powerful mighty fast. If, say, they were just playing Ouija Board games and Cassie’s presence suddenly let them successfully pull off Light As A Feather, Stiff As A Board, I’d think there was ample potential for growth. But we’re in the pilot and these teens are already harnessing pretty massive elemental powers. At this rate, they’ll be raising the dead by November sweeps and folding the universe like an origami crane by the end of Season 1.
I guess that’s for Kevin Williamson and his posse to worry about, just like Williamson and Julie Plec will eventually have to deal with the absurdly accelerate pace of plotting on “Vampire Diaries,” which is one of those things that isn’t a problem until it is. [I’m looking at you, “The O.C.” Season 2.]
I saw a hilarious New York Times review that referred to how Robertson seemed less comfortable with the “melodramatics” of “The Secret Circle” than she was with “the wry comedy” of “Life Unexpected.” I’m not gonna call that reviewer out, but that would be somebody would didn’t watch “Life Unexpected” after the pilot, since that series progressed down a hyper-emotional and melodramatic arc that made everything else on The CW look like “Sesame Street” last season and Robertson was forced into darker and darker and more vulnerable places. In that context, her limitations were certainly clear, but “The Secret Circle” must feel like riding (and frequently falling) on a motorcycle and then just hunkering down on a Big Wheel. She’s got a solid vulnerability and she also plays determined pluck well. On “Vampire Diaries,” Williamson has excelled at giving his versatile actors more to do and keeping a tight leash on the ones who may not have the same range and I trust he’ll work well with Robertson.
The rest of the coven is a mixed bag, though that may be just a function of a premise pilot that makes it difficult to service a full circle of witches. I can’t rule out Hennig, Louis Hunter and Jessica Parker Kennedy becoming interesting actors in later episodes, but they made no real impression here. Also coming out muted, though probably intentionally, is Dekker, who has mostly chosen to emphasize “sensitivity” thus far.
If you’ve been following my early writing on “The Secret Circle,” you’ve probably caught my early enthusiasm for Phoebe Tonkin, who you’ll probably only know if you’re a fan of Aussie soaps of if you found yourself inexplicably watching the mediocre “Red Dawn” rip-off “Tomorrow, When the War Begins” on a long airplane flight. She’s got one of the showiest roles in the “Secret Circle” pilot, playing bad-girl witch Faye, the leading advocate for taking full advantage of their boosted gifts. It’s a juicy part and Tonkin provides the perfect amount of potentially unhinged glee. With the other witches hung up on that hoary Spider-Man power/responsibility binary, Tonkin’s the young actor who gets to have the most fun.
Remembering, again, how little fun anybody was having back in the “Vampire Diaries” pilot, there’s also ample reason to praise Gale Harold. When last we saw him, he was stuck in a cringe-worthy supporting roll on “Hellcats” (slightly redundant), but he’s been set free here and nobody’s forcing him to soft-pedal Charles’ malevolent nature. Harold’s a little mustache-twirl-y (not literally), but if you can’t slice off a bit of ham and let loose in a drama about teenage witches, what’s the point? I also sensed potential in Natasha Henstridge’s principal-with-a-secret, though that has less to do with anything she gets to do in the pilot and more to do with a feeling that on things like “Eli Stone” and “Commander in Chief,” the “Species” veteran has proven herself to a kinda underrated actress.
“The Secret Circle” isn’t designed to win new viewers to The CW. It breaks no new topical or formal ground and nothing in the pilot is designed to be all that surprising, though director Liz Friedlander keeps the pace snappy and uses the Pacific Northwest setting well. All “The Secret Circle” is designed to do is go down palatably after “The Vampire Diaries,” with the challenge being that “The Vampire Diaries” is an establish show hitting on all of its available cylinders, while “The Secret Circle” has some of the tentativeness and broadness that you associate with pilots. I’d also guess that “The Secret Circle” is going to skew younger than “The Vampire Diaries” currently does, since I don’t think a “Vampire Diaries” character has set foot in a high school in months. I don’t think “The Secret Circle” is a better show than “Nikita” was when it premiered or when it ended its season, but I know that it’s a better fit on Thursdays at 9 p.m.
As a guy who watches a lot of TV, my preference is always for shows with the highest aspirations, even if the reach does, indeed, exceed the grasp. But I’m OK with shows that deliver basically on what they promise. For an assortment of reasons, I’ve watched the “Secret Circle” pilot three times and it’s delivered the same current of amusing, low-reaching entertainment each time. That’s certainly enough to keep me watching for a few weeks to see if Williamson and company have any desire to go for more.
“The Secret Circle” premieres at 9 p.m. on Thursday (September 15) night on The CW.