[15 September 2011]
The Secret Circle is based on a young adult trilogy of books written by L.J. Smith, who also wrote The Vampire Diaries, another book series, adapted as a CW series in 2009. The one-two punch of both series on Thursday nights seems a formidable teen-focused block of supernatural programming, a successful genre for the CW and its previous incarnation, the WB.
It’s impossible not to notice all the attractive young bodies in The Secret Circle‘s premiere episode. But as I watched, I couldn’t help noting that the leads aren’t old enough to remember when their co-star Natasha Henstridge appeared in Species—in 1995.
The emphasis on youth is everywhere in The Secret Circle‘s premiere episode. Underwhelming but very, very pretty, it offers an explosion of expository set-up and backstory, Such explanation is to be expected of mythology-based TV series, but here it also diverges from the source books. In the first book of the trilogy, meek 16-year-old Cassie moves to New Salem on the East Coast with her mother; in this adaptation, Cassie’s mother is quickly dispatched in the opening minutes by a mysterious man in a silver sedan, who magically conjures a violent fire in her home. The suddenly orphaned Cassie (Britt Robertson) drives 1000 miles to live with her grandmother (Ashley Crow) in Chance Harbor, Washington, her mother’s hometown, from which she ran away when she was a girl.
The first of many strange events occurs when Cassie closes her curtains to the prying eyes of a neighbor boy, only to turn around after changing into her pajamas to find the curtains wide open again. Perhaps the tragic loss of her mother is playing tricks with her mind. On her first day as the new kid in school, Cassie is hounded by the dominating Faye Chamberlain (Phoebe Tonkin), characterized by aggressive eyeliner and a constantly craned neck that give her a strikingly vulturous appearance.
Faye’s mother, Dawn (Henstridge) also happens to be the school principal, a point that only underlines her role as the school’s “bad girl,” so designated by the much kinder Diana (Shelly Hennig). When Diana immediately avails herself to Cassie and invites her out after school to the neighborhood haunt, a waterside restaurant called the Boathouse, you see where the cliquish lines are being drawn—and where the predictable plot is going. Here Cassie encounters Adam (Thomas Dekker), Diana’s boyfriend who can’t stop staring at Cassie. Adam’s father is the owner of the restaurant, who quickly engages Cassie in a pitiful story of his doomed relationship with Cassie’s mother, Amelia, whose history in the town appears to be shrouded in secrets.
No surprise, The Secret Circle features a lot of secrets, most of them passed down over generations. The biggest one—at least in this first episode—is revealed when Faye arrives at the Boathouse and magically causes Cassie’s SUV to catch fire. Cassie, unaware that she possesses magical powers of her own, freaks out and is saved by Adam, producing another moment of intense gazing between the witchy teens.
The number of these teens keeps multiplying. Diana and Adam soon join with Cassie’s voyeuristic neighbor Nick (Louis Hunter), as well as Faye and her friend Melissa (Jessica Parker Kennedy) in order to invite Cassie to join their teenage coven and continue her family legacy. Also unsurprisingly, in Cassie they see a key to escalating the circle’s powers. Up until now, they’ve only been able to work simple feats like moving objects or setting small fires they can’t put out. With Cassie on board, they can do more. And that’s a dangerous prospect with someone as unpredictable as Faye in the group.
For the moment, the kids’ activities aren’t so diabolical as their parents’. Diana’s father, Charles (Gale Harold), appears in sinister cahoots with Dawn. More than aware their children are practicing witchcraft, they have other ideas for exploiting Cassie’s untapped powers.
Unfortunately, The Secret Circle‘s first episode doesn’t offer much beyond all this plotty set-up. Specifically, it’s missing what made other supernatural shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Supernatural successful: funny, quirky, and layered characters.