The most distressing thing about The Secret Circle (premiere: Sep. 15, 2011 on The CW) is that it demonstrates a failure to absorb the most important achievement of its big brother, The Vampire Diaries -- that venality born of supernatural power can still be nuanced and complex. The arched eyebrow and crooked smile so often worn by damaged aggressor Damon Salvatore is beyond the capacity of Circle's broad-brush bad girl Faye (Phoebe Tonkin), or the one-note adult villains led by Charles (a cold and sneering Gale Harold). What's left for protagonist Cassie (Britt Robertson) to do but snap into place as the Protector?
A Circle of Newly Powerful Teens
Perhaps such a comparison is unfair -- after all, Ian Somerhalder's Damon Salvatore did start out on Vampire Diaries expressing a desire to make his brother Stefan (Paul Wesley) suffer a drawn-out and painful humiliation. But Damon's antagonism developed not from simple evil or lust for power, but a nexus of complicated events that were both buried in the past and powerfully linked to recent developments; and his aggression evolved over the course of a string of involving developments.
In The Secret Circle, however, things seem simpler. Cassie has moved to the seaside village of Chance Harbor, Washington, after the sudden death of her widowed mother. There she quickly mixes into a small group of fellow teens who seem very interested in her: Faye; overachieving in-charge girl Diana (Shelley Hennig); too-pretty nice guy Adam (Thomas Dekker); laid-back Nick (Louis Hunter); and Melissa (Jessica Parker Kennedy), who seems comfortable staying in the background.
After Faye "tests" Cassie (to force her to manifest her latent magical abilities) by setting Cassie's car on fire with her in it (gosh, what a bad girl she is!), the gang corrals Cassie and dumps the truth on her: she's a witch, they're all witches, and they need her to complete the Circle made up of members from each of their families. Cassie, of course, flees these raving lunatics, but is convinced it's all real by nice guy Adam in a sweet and romantic scene alone in the woods. (Adam is dating Diana, but the scene cements Adam and Cassie as the Official Couple.) Oh, and it's a Secret Circle -- don't tell grandma!
The set-up might have worked had the subsequent development of the two related themes -- the Circle's surge in ability with Cassie present and Cassie's having to deal with her sudden introduction to witch society -- been handled with any subtlety. But the heady intoxication brought by the dramatic leveling up of power for the Circle is presented, not as what would certainly be a personality-challenging change of circumstance for all five of these immature, exuberant teenagers, but as an invitation for Faye to indulge in rote, destructive egotism. She marches out onto a pier and, laughing madly at her power, calls up a massive, town-smashing storm that she then can't control, in a sequence so cliched it predates The Sorcerer's Apprentice by several centuries.
And the moment is resolved by Cassie, who should still be in the earliest stages of grappling with her gift and situation. But the director, CW trencher Liz Friedlander, has Cassie simply march out onto the pier and shout "Stop it!" at the sky, without a trace of what could have happened -- what needed to happen -- in that moment: uncertainty, confusion, discovery, and finally embracing of the raging power that allows her this mastery of the chaos of nature. This could have been Cassie's moment to reach inward, finally sense with awe for the first time what has laid within her, feel it out in its potent unfamiliarity, and then shockingly embrace it in the urgent need to resolve the crisis. But instead, she's just some girl who decides to walk out onto a pier and shout "Stop it!" at the sky, and the sky meekly obeys.
Adults Have Secrets Too
The adult generation is similarly afflicted with paint-by-numbers plot functionality rather than any sense of complexity or nuance. Apparently things got out of hand with the previous generation's incarnation of the Circle: many of them are dead, including Cassie's father (who died before Cassie was born, inducing Cassie's mom to flee Chance Harbor), for mysterious reasons that the sinister Charles wants kept mysterious.
Adam's father, Ethan (Adam Harrington), still carries a torch for Cassie's dead mom and seems inclined to spill everything to Cassie, but he's (a) a lush and (b) under Charles's thumb, while Faye's mom, Dawn (Natasha Henstridge), who's also the school principal, is in league with Charles. All this leaves Cassie's down-to-earth grandma, Jane (Ashley Crow), faintly suspicious but otherwise ignorant of the machinations of both of the younger generations -- making her come across as unfortunately clueless, at least for now.
Perhaps there's an opportunity here for shades of gray to develop within the hand-wringing, mwahaha initial sketches of characters like Charles, Dawn, and Faye, as they did on Vampire Diaries. And room is left open for something interesting to be done with characters like Nick and Melissa, who spend the pilot watching from the wings. But that scene on the pier is a bad sign that The Secret Circle is going to squander its potential in clunky formula, missing a stellar opportunity to really explore what it actually would be like for ordinary teens to be gifted with extraordinary power. Watching The Secret Circle I'm finding myself missing more sophisticated treatments of newcomers entering into entrenched conspiracies of supernatural abilities, like The Gates.