The trickiest part about reviewing TV shows is that not all series pilots are great. Many aren’t even very good. While a subpar debut may rightfully predict a show isn’t worth investing in, sometimes, a series can overcome a rocky start. I largely dismissed The CW’s “The Vampire Diaries” when it first aired in September 2009, writing it off as another entry in the vamp craze. But I kept watching. Based on the young adult book series by L.J. Smith, “Diaries” has steadily proved to be one of the more addicting primetime soap operas on TV and one that doesn’t pull punches. Major characters die; major organs are ripped out of bodies by pissed-off vampires. It’s “True Blood” light, complete with werewolves and witches, but perhaps even more entertaining. Its third season debuted strongly Thursday and was immediately followed by “The Secret Circle” (9/8C), another hourlong drama network executives no doubt hope will draw in just as many viewers. They stuck to a winning formula: Based on another series by Smith, the pilot was produced by several “Diaries” showrunners, including Kevin Williamson. Here, witches are at center stage, along with the requisite teen drama, and like “Diaries,” “The Secret Circle” so far presents enough mystery to be engaging.
“Destiny’s not easy to run from,” we hear in a voiceover from Amelia Blake, the single mother of Cassie (Britt Robertson) at home cooking when her daughter calls. Cassie has a flat; after nearly being sideswiped by a reckless driver, her tire mysteriously blew. Amelia offers to come help, but the self-sufficient Cassie is handling the tire change. A car — the same car that nearly sent Cassie off the road — pulls up at the house and a frequency interferes with and stops their cell phone conversation. A man steps out of the car and as he pours water onto the street, the faucet at the kitchen explodes, shooting water everywhere. Then, as he starts lighting matches, the stove’s burners catch fire. Amelia tries to stop the water and turns the burners off, but over and over, the flames come back. Soon, the man sets the entire kitchen and then the house ablaze, engulfing Amelia in flames before she can escape.
Cut to a month later, and the now-orphaned Cassie is moving to Chance Harbor, Wash., to live with her maternal grandmother, Jane (Ashley Crow), not knowing that her mother’s death was no accident. Soon, we know whoever was involved wanted Cassie to move back to the town, where many of the residents appear to have been waiting for her, especially five teens: Adam Conant (Thomas Dekker), Diana Meade (Shelly Hennig), Faye Chamberlain (Phoebe Tonkin), Melissa (Jessica Parker Kennedy) and Nick (Louis Hunter). All are anxious to meet her and even more so to bring her into their circle of witchcraft — Cassie is the missing sixth member of a circle that passes through generations and dates back to the 17th century. Individually, the teens have been able to perform small spells, and bad girl Faye has fun at Cassie’s expense by locking her in her car at one point and letting the engine smoke. But the engine quickly catches fire, which Faye didn’t intend. It was Cassie’s energy that set the blaze. With all six witches in the same area, their power is magnified beyond each individual’s control. The de facto leader of the group, the sweet Diana, is pushing to conduct a ritual to bind their powers so they can be controlled, but first, she and the others have to convince Cassie they’re not insane.
Cassie believes they’re witches — the cute Adam, who saved her from being trapped in the burning car, convinces her by helping her work a spell of making water droplets float — but she doesn’t want to be a part of the circle. Cassie can’t understand why her mother, who she learns also was a witch, hadn’t told her about her abilities (Jane has them, too) and why she left the town 16 years ago. There was an accident, it turns out, caused by the previous circle — a parent of each of the six teens. And it appears that six people died — the other parent of the teens, including Cassie’s father. Most of the remaining parents want to keep a lid on the tragedy, although Adam’s father, Ethan, drinks his sorrow daily and begins blabbing to Cassie. He loved Amelia and tells her daughter that his and her families are “written in the stars.” He was destined for Amelia, even though she didn’t choose him, just as Cassie is destined for Adam, who happens to be dating Diana. “You don’t want to mess with fate,” he says. “Bad things happen when you mess with fate.”
Ethan is stopped short of divulging too much information to Cassie and later is threatened by one of the remaining parents, Charles Meade (Gale Harold), Diana’s father and the very man we saw kill Amelia. He and Faye’s mother, Dawn Chamberlain (Natasha Henstridge), the principal at the high school, brought Cassie to town, although it’s not yet clear why. But they don’t want her knowing what happened in the past. Sleeping in her mother’s old bedroom at Jane’s house, Cassie finds an old leather journal containing spells and a letter written by Amelia. If she’s reading this, the note says, then Amelia must be gone and Cassie has learned what she is. “I hoped that keeping the secret would keep you safe,” Amelia wrote. “You have incredible power inside you. People will come for it. They will come for you.”
Robertson, who starred in The CW’s short-lived “Life Unexpected,” does a convincing enough job carrying the story, as do the rest of the cast members. It’s the twists, however, just like in “The Vampire Diaries,” that will keep the series interesting, not the acting. This isn’t “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”; the wit has been replaced with alt-pop ballads and longing stares. But what the shows lack in their writing they make up for by being fun to watch. It’s an interesting niche for the network to carve out, adding yet another supernatural-themed drama to the ranks of “Diaries” and “Supernatural,” but the genre is ripe for coming-of-age tales. Life seems a lot harder when it can be ended so quickly at the hands of a monster, or a spell, and its lessons can be tough to swallow. But with magic, the risks, while greater, make the ride more exciting. Here’s hoping “The Secret Circle” doesn’t slow down.
Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Pembroke Welsh corgi.