Broadcast Date: 15 September 2011
Director: Liz Friedlander
Writer: Andrew Miller
Cast: Ashley Crow, Thomas Dekker, Gale Harold, Shelley Hennig, Jessica Parker Kennedy, Brittany Robertson, and Phoebe Tonkin
Given the unequivocal success of The Vampire Diaries, I’m surprised the CW hasn’t ordered a full lineup of Twilight knockoffs, dropped the “C” in their logo, and advertised the lonesome “W” as vampire fangs. Instead, the network has commissioned a new drama from executive producer Kevin Williamson, one that can hopefully tap into the same market without being so obvious as to give Stephenie Meyer a high five during the opening credits.
Enter The Secret Circle, which may as well have been titled “The Wiccan Diaries” or “If It Ain’t Broke Don’t Fix It”. Based on the books by L.J. Smith, the series stars Brittany Robertson as Cassie Blake, a strong-willed teenager who, after losing her mother, Amelia (Emily Holmes), moves to a small harbour town not unlike Capeside from Dawson’s Creek or Glory from Glory Days. There she meets her supporting cast, an assortment of John Hughes archetypes who inform her that she’s part of a secret circle of witches and warlocks. No one mentions The Craft (1996), but viewers familiar with it or Williamson’s work may get a hint of déjà vu.
I don’t mean this as criticism by the way. After all, recycling is good for the environment, and the show’s target audience may prove too young to recognise the clichés. I cringed during Adam (Thomas Decker) and Cassie’s thinly veiled “magic is sex” sequence. A fifteen-year-old might not. Besides, the formula plays to Williamson’s strengths. The scribe’s got a gift for writing preternaturally articulate teens, the sort that feel real even as they go through the motions of an all too mechanical plot.
Mind you, that’s been known to cause ambivalence in older viewers. Take, for example, the scene in which our heroine meets her above-mentioned love interest at a diner. Adam works there, of course, because adolescent boys with jobs and drunken dads evoke an odd mix of pity and admiration that makes young girls weak in the knees. My first reaction was to roll my eyes at the blatant manipulation. My second was to wonder how long it would take for the crazy kids to get over their respective problems and hook up already.
It helps that the lead was just about the only likeable thing in last year’s Life Unexpected. Robertson has got charm and charisma, despite not quite pulling off them cheesy incantations. I also have a lot of affection for Thomas Decker, who proved himself a promising thespian in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I’m unfamiliar with the rest of the cast, but I appreciate that the producers have refrained from going to the cloning machine so often used at the CW. I think the folk over at One Tree Hill might have broken it.
Just to be clear, I’m not comparing the two shows. The Secret Circle has much more to offer than a mysteriously absent Chad Michael Murray. I like the way it taps into mundane facets of the teen experience. Consider the understated way Cassie reacts when she discovers the first cute boy she’s met in Chance Harbor has got a girlfriend (Shelley Hennig) or how the overarching conspiracy involving Amelia’s murder plays into every child’s belief that grownups are trying to control his or her life for their own selfish ends. Actually, I’m really curious where that’s headed.
What we’ve got here is a typical Kevin Williamson show, and I’ve got a lot of patience for the creator, even when he appears to be phoning it in just a bit. In 1996, the man brought new life to the slasher genre with Scream. Two years later, he reinvented the teen soap opera with Dawson’s Creek, giving the WB (now the CW) its identity as a network. The Secret Circle strikes me as television by the numbers, so I doubt it can reach those heights, but I don’t think it’ll end up like Wasteland either.