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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2011-2012 season, now in its sixth year! Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season (or one that didn't make the cut) and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on the original sales presentation which was screened to us privately or supplied by a third party NOT an informational, not-for-review screener provided by the network in question.]
THE SECRET CIRCLE (The CW)
(written by Andrew Miller; directed by Liz Friedlander; TRT: 43:27)
The network's description: "Cassie Blake was a happy, normal teenage girl - until her mother Amelia dies in what appears to be a tragic accidental fire. Orphaned and deeply saddened, Cassie moves in with her warm and loving grandmother Jane in the beautiful small town of Chance Harbor, Washington - the town her mother left so many years before - where the residents seem to know more about Cassie than she does about herself. As Cassie gets to know her high school classmates, including sweet-natured Diana and her handsome boyfriend Adam, brooding loner Nick, mean-girl Faye and her sidekick Melissa, strange and frightening things begin to happen. When her new friends explain that they are all descended from powerful witches, and they've been waiting for Cassie to join them and complete a new generation of the Secret Circle, Cassie refuses to believe them - until Adam shows her how to unlock her incredible magical powers. But it's not until Cassie discovers a message from her mother in an old leather-bound book of spells hidden in her mother's childhood bedroom, that she understands her true and dangerous destiny.
What Cassie and the others don't yet know is that darker powers are at play, powers that might be linked to the adults in the town, including Diana's father and Faye's mother - and that Cassie's mother's death might not have been an accident. The series stars Britt Robertson as Cassie Blake, Thomas Dekker as Adam Conant, Gale Harold as Charles Meade, Phoebe Tonkin as Fay Chamberlain, Jessica Parker Kennedy as Melissa, Shelley Hennig as Diana Meade, Louis Hunter as Nick, Ashley Crow as Jane Blake and Natasha Henstridge as Dawn Chamberlain. Based upon the book series by L.J. Smith (author of "The Vampire Diaries" book series), THE SECRET CIRCLE is from Outerbanks Entertainment and Alloy Entertainment in association with Warner Bros. Television and CBS Television Studios with executive producers Kevin Williamson ("The Vampire Diaries," "Scream," "Dawson's Creek"), Andrew Miller ("Imaginary Bitches"), Leslie Morgenstein ("The Vampire Diaries," "Gossip Girl") and Gina Girolamo. Elizabeth Craft ("The Vampire Diaries," "Lie to Me") & Sarah Fain ("The Vampire Diaries," "Lie to Me") were executive producers on the pilot which was directed by Liz Friedlander ("The Vampire Diaries," "90210")."
What did they leave out? The character of Doug Henderson, a seventh member of the Circle featured in the script, has been excised from the show.
The plot in a nutshell: When a fire claims the life of her mother Amelia (Emily Holmes), Cassie Blake (Britt Robertson) goes to live with her grandmother Jane (Ashley Crow) in her mom's sleepy hometown of Chance Harbor, Washington. There Cassie finds Amelia's legacy at every turn as its residents regularly remind her how much she looks like Amelia, from her new principal Dawn Chamberlain (Natasha Henstridge) to the owner of the local hangout Ethan Conant (Adam Harrington). Her new classmates likewise treat her like a shiny new toy: whether it's alpha girls Faye (Phoebe Tonkin, daughter of the aforementioned Dawn) and Melissa (Jessica Parker Kennedy); hunky neighbor Nick (Louis Hunter); or the welcoming couple of Adam (Thomas Dekker, son of the aforementioned Ethan) and Diana (Shelley Hennig).
The stares and hushed whispers however hint something more is going on, a fact that's confirmed after her car improbably catches fire when Faye indicates she needs a nudge to figure out what's going on. You see, Faye, Adam, Diana and company are actually witches, just like their parents before them. And more than that: Cassie is one too, just like her mother before her. Her arrival has supercharged everyone's burgeoning abilities, requiring them to form a secret circle - again, like their parents before them - in order to get them under control. Cassie's understandably skeptical about their claims, especially considering it would mean her family has been lying to her for her entire life. She ultimately comes around, thanks in part to a demonstration of her latent powers by the increasingly smitten Adam, but not before the sextet's remaining parents - which also include Diana's father Charles (Gale Harold) - begin their own plans for Cassie.
What works: To its credit, the show unpacks its premise and establishes its conflicts quickly and efficiently. There's good girl Diana and bad girl Faye playing tug of war over how to handle Cassie, there's the parents' agenda which presumably runs counter to circle's own and of course there's neophyte Cassie herself trapped in the middle, trying to make sense of it all. It helps that Robertson is as likeable as ever as she's put through the emotional wringer at every turn, giving some much needed gravitas to what's going on. Considering its somewhat wonky premise, it's good that she's the show's north star.
What doesn't: Beyond Robertson's Cassie though, it's a decidedly mixed bag. Dekker's Adam doesn't have much of a spark with Cassie, making the concept that he's her star-crossed lover a tough sell, especially when it's literally supposed to be written in the stars. The show likewise tries to stamp Faye as the reckless, uncensored bad girl (Diana: "Do not push me Faye, I mean it." Faye: "Do you want to try that again because I didn't quite buy it. Did you?") but it comes across as vampy scenery chewing more than anything. The rest of the kids just kind of waltz in, say their two cents and leave without leaving much of an impression while the parents just ominously speak about things we've yet to learn.
For a show that spends a lot of time talking about concepts we never actually see, histories we don't yet care about, abilities that are only hinted at and other gobbledygook, having a few more well-rounded characters would definitely be a plus. And considering you could probably find and replace the term "witches" with any number of genre standard-bearers here, making the show in general a little more unique wouldn't hurt either. That's not to say you won't find something to glom onto if you're into these kinds of shows. If anything, it feels more coherent and self-assured than say "The Vampire Diaries" did out of the gate so...
The bottom line: ...there's a chance it could grow on me.