September 23, 2011

THE SKED’S PILOT + 1 REVIEW: “The Secret Circle”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot in the spring and production of episodes for the regular season:  a writing/producing team is hired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover in the off-season) give plenty of notes, both helpful and otherwise, and critics begin to rear their ugly heads.  The results can include changes to tone, pace, casting and even story.  Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular episodes of this year’s new series as well.
Previously… on THE SECRET CIRCLE:  When Cassie Blake (Britt Robertson)’s mother is mysteriously killed, she goes to stay with her grandmother in the picturesque seaside town of Chance Harbor.  There she discovers that she is the sixth, and pivotal, member of a coven of teen witches, who will collectively wield great power if they bind themselves together.  What none of them know is that they’re being manipulated by the survivors of the previous generation’s coven, who had their powers taken away when something they did caused the deaths of many of the members.  That older coven–which includes the high school principal (Natasha Henstridge)–is responsible for killing Cassie’s mother in order to get the girl to town, since the new coven’s existence will somehow bring back their elders’ powers.

Episode 2:  The biggest problem with The Secret Circle is that The Vampire Diaries exists (and airs as its lead-in), and although both shows are produced by Kevin Williamson and based on books by L.J. Smith, Vampire is infinitely more fun.  Circle is much more of a “teen” show, partly because some of the high school students in Vampire are actually hundred-year old vamps, but more because Vampire early on abandoned all but the barest pretext of teen life and turned to the business of intricately plotted, darkly romantic storytelling.  Vampire also has a flair for killing off just about any character at a moments noticej (not that they always–heh heh–stay dead), making for some genuine suspense, while the victim in tonight’s Circle was so obvious that he should have been carrying around his own burial instructions.

In the series’ second episode, written by Executive Producers Williamson and Andrew Miller, most of the action involved Cassie’s deciding whether or not to join the coven’s “binding spell” that would focus their powers but also place them under group control.  After she and designated cute-boy Adam (Thomas Dekker)–naturally another coven member’s boyfriend–had adorably made lightbulbs fizzle and explode with their repressed passion for one another, and Mean Witch Diana (Shelley Hennig) almost killed a civilian, Cassie reluctantly agreed to the spell, and its casting ended the episode.

Thus far, Secret Circle is more than a little plodding.  Cassie, as played by Robertson, is all too normal, without any of the snap that Nina Dobrev brings to her heroine Elena in Vampire (even before we knew that Elena had an ingeniously bloodthirsty vampire doppelganger–but I digress).  The villains are a colorless lot, and with their very limited powers–they have to clutch a crystal to be able to cast any spells–they’re none too scary.  The show’s jokey references to Harry Potter aside, Circle needs a Voldemort–and fast.  

Secret Circle has the most cushioned spot on the CW schedule, with Vampire handing it a lead-in every other show on the network can only envy.  So unless the ratings collapse, it’ll have an extended chance to prove itself.  But it’s soon going to need sparks beyond the ones from its many shattered lightbulbs if it’s to justify its existence.

Original Verdict:  If Nothing Else Is On…
Pilot + 1:  Keep Looking–Something Else Probably IS On

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."