It’s a busy morning in the hallway of a small town American high school. As the new kid enters the building, all conversation stops. Heads turn towards the ponytailed boy with the intense eyes.
Danny Desai (Avan Jogia) is a good-looking, charismatic teenager with a great sense of humor and an appealing calm under pressure. In ABC Family’s new summer series, Twisted, this charming young man also happens to be an admitted murderer who has just been released after five years in juvenile detention. His mother Karen (Denise Richards) lobbies for her son to be admitted to the local high school despite predictable protests by other parents and community members.
Before we even see Danny, we meet his two childhood best friends, Jo (Maddie Hasson) and Lacey (Kylie Bunbury). The three were together when Danny killed his aunt, but the girls have grown apart in the time since then. While it might be easy to dismiss Jo’s do-good nature as stereotypical, she’s not all idealism and rainbows. Her energy and devotion to justice read as intelligent and impressively adult. That her father Kyle (Sam Robards) is the town’s sheriff complicates her defense of Danny at school.
Lacey, the more popular of the two girls, seems less sure of her own feelings. The contrast between the girls hints at the spectrum of responses to Danny, a grey emotional area that helps viewers feel comfortable with their own ambiguous feelings about him. Because we don’t have to pick sides right away, we’re able to see what’s happening among characters more clearly. It’s a commendable move in a media atmosphere that encourages and even creates snap judgments, especially about juvenile offenders.
The show challenges typical representations of delinquent teens early, when Danny, Jo, and their classmates discuss what it means to be a “sociopath” in their psychology class. Mrs. Fisk (Kathy Najimy) reveals that Danny has been called a “Socio” on Twitter, and students quickly chime in, saying they think the insult is appropriate. Only Jo stands up for Danny, all the while remaining wary of him. She asks her teacher how you can tell if someone is really a sociopath or not. It’s a question that will haunt Jo, and the viewer, for the rest of the episode.
Like so many enigmatic teen heroes before him, Danny appears remote, even secretive, but it’s hard to say. Is he a killer behind his tranquil façade, like Ted Bundy? A confused manchild of the sort played by James Dean? His former friends are both attracted and worried by Danny’s reserve. And he might recall for us the archetype of the gentleman killer dating back to 13th century European literature, the same type who has appeared on almost every police procedural TV show at some point in time.
However, this archetype is transformed when applied to a teenager, contradictory and mutable by definition. For all his allure, Danny’s also prone to youthful bluffing and boasting, and making mistakes. And as we get to know him, the question of why he killed his aunt becomes our central focus, as it is for everyone around him. Danny’s ambiguity affects our perceptions of others: suddenly, their behavior becomes suspect too. We’re returned to the question of whether or not we can ever know who is or isn’t deviant, how deviance is defined.
Twisted combines a handful of stereotypical ideas about romanticized teenage criminals with fresh perspectives on how humans understand or fear one another under intense stress. As we might identify with him, Danny helps us remember how difficult it is to be an adolescent, always different.