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Television review: CW's 'Secret Circle' and 'H8R' brew up drama

A teen coven with plenty of tension and pretty faces might not sound original but 'The Secret Circle' gets it right. Meanwhile, reality show 'H8R' lets celebrities and their critics meet eye to eye.

September 14, 2011|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Thomas Dekker and Britt Robertson star in "The Secret Circle."
Thomas Dekker and Britt Robertson star in "The Secret Circle." (Sergei Bachlakov / The CW )

It's Wednesday on the CW, the closest thing that broadcast television has to a youth network, and the curtain is being pulled back on two new series: a supernatural teen drama that does things right, and a reality show that makes a good point about not judging books by their cover (or their own reality shows), though it is artificial and thin and smeared with the dubious glitter of minor celebrity.

"Destiny's not easy to run from," we hear a voice say at the top of "The Secret Circle." (In fact, it's impossible to run from or it wouldn't be destiny.) The fate at hand — mild spoiler ahead, but it's the premise, after all — is that of 16-year-old Cassie Blake (Britt Robertson), who will soon learn, not particularly to her pleasure, that she is a witch: the last link in a six-teen coven, whose coming will promote their combined powers from "lame" to awesome.

Like the network's successful and not dissimilar "The Vampire Diaries" (which begins its third season Thursday), it has been adapted from a series of books by L.J. Smith and developed in part by Kevin Williamson, who made his big-screen name with "Scream" and small-screen name with "Dawson's Creek," streams that feed the work at hand. We have been here before, of course, or somewhere like it: I direct your attention to "The Craft" (1996), to a teenage sorceress named Sabrina, and to the signal literary influence — Henry Porter, is it? — on the generations to which this show is pitched.

And yet, this air of familiarity notwithstanding, the pilot is splendidly rendered; effective in the expected ways in a way that makes you forget you expected them. Director Liz Friedlander aims not just for creepiness but for a tremulous sense of beauty that reflects the heightened sensibilities and hair-trigger sensitivities of adolescence. There is a very pretty sequence involving floating drops of dew that suggests a metaphor for magic as sex, and the pilot generally licks its lips over the moody light and low northern skies that spell "Made in Canada." (The series moves the action from the books' original location, Salem, Mass., to a fictional harbor town in Washington state — "Twilight" territory, possibly not incidentally.)

Similarly, it's been cast with actors who, it goes without saying, are good to look at, but who also bring a little soul to their roles. As in all such romances, much of the matter is conveyed in their meaningful looks, and in looks away. As Cassie, the suddenly orphaned new girl in town, Robertson ("Life Unexpected") has something of the lost-blond quality that Sarah Michelle Gellar brought to "Buffy" a generation of slayers ago. Force-for-chaos Faye (Phoebe Tonkin) describes Cassie as the "sad, delicate" sort, and is herself described in turn, by force-for-order Diana (Shelley Hennig), as the "resident bad girl" — these types are so well established that even the characters know it.

Rounding out the circle are baby-faced Thomas Dekker, who recently played Lance Loud in HBO's "Cinema Verite" and who stirs something in Cassie that she can name but not yet face. Contrasting male Louis Hunter is so far mostly an impressive array of abs and a moody pout, while Jessica Parker Kennedy takes the oft-thankless sidekick-to-the-mean-girl role. But this may change.

In "H8R," ordinary citizens learn that the celebrities they love to hate are people too. The idea is that some person happy enough to be filmed insulting a famous person is then confronted by that person, first to be flummoxed — that moment of embarrassment is where the lesson lies — and then converted. I have seen the first half of the pilot episode, which features pint-sized peace disturber Snooki, who would like you to call her Nicole. (Kim Kardashian is the hate object in Part 2.) Snooki drags citizen-critic Nick to a grocery, where he weakly defends his position, and then she cooks his skeptical Italian family a meal. Will they admit finally that she's really a lovely girl? Have you been listening?

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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