Ghosts of Fandoms Past: The Secret Circle

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Flashback to 2011, when the CW — presumably inspired by the success of The Vampire Diaries’ first season and a half — orders another adaptation of an L.J. Smith teen fantasy series centered on supernatural events in a small town populated by angsty high schoolers and suspicious adults. This time, the protagonists are witches, out to investigate the legacy their parents’ circle left them while dodging attacks from demons and witch hunters. The show has a promising start as the highest-rated new series on the network, and the third-highest show overall, but the CW ultimately chooses to end its run in 2012 after the first season comes to a close.

The Secret Circle’s always been a show I feel compelled to rewatch from time to time ever since its cancellation, and it’s for a reason that might sound a little weird. I love several characters and I do think the show has its strong points, but as a whole it’s wildly uneven and painfully cliché at times. Depending on the episode, I’ll veer back and forth between total glee and unimpressed glares. The pacing leaves a lot to be desired, and the less said about the abundance of love triangles the better. (This is a lie. I’ll come back to the love triangles later.) And yet: there was and is so much potential in this short-lived show that I wish we could have seen what would happen next. Certain relationships are fascinating and deserving of more screen time. It’s such a mixed bag as a series, and that’s what makes me interested in analyzing it. So: let’s check out what worked, what could have been better, and where things might have gone had the show a chance to continue.

The Good:

  • Complicated intra-circle dynamics. I loved seeing the main characters clash and work together in weird ways; it felt like such an organic idea. Imagine you’re a teenager who’s suddenly forced to share an intimate, scary secret with a bunch of other kids who you may or may not like very much: all of these kids had their own agendas and it was one of the best things about the show. Cassie (Britt Robertson), the central protagonist, just wanted to be left alone, while Diana (played excellently by a pre-Teen Wolf Shelley Hennig) slowly transformed from the perfectionist who wanted everyone to unite to a stressed-out girl who just wanted to be left alone. Meanwhile, Faye’s (Phoebe Tonkin) desperate power plays added a lot of tense, fun layers to her bad girl persona, and Melissa (Jessica Parker Kennedy, who I’m pretty sure is one of the most underrated actors out there) was a very relatable character who constantly struggled with figuring out how to stand on her own two feet. The early death of Nick (Louis Hunter) brought his shady brother Jake (Chris Zylka) into the circle, which negatively set off both Faye and Adam (Thomas Dekker.) Everyone’s individual friendships could be as complicated as they were sincere, causing as much trouble as the more antagonistic connections, and that made it even more satisfying when they successfully came together.
  • On that note: I’ve never seen a supernatural teen drama with a main group of kids that actually acknowledged how socially isolating their experiences would be. In the back half of the season, the circle members talk about how they never hang out with anyone else or participate in anything at school. There’s a genuine acknowledgement of how having an absurdly dramatic and horrifying secret life would prevent you from ever really being able to relate to anyone else ever again, and it’s cool to see a television show actually think about those kinds of consequences. Worrying about monsters and witch hunters is one thing; having to accept that your life only features worrying about monsters and witch hunters is another entirely. When The Secret Circle went out of its way to nail the sadness and frustration there, it was pretty good at it.
  • Faye, Melissa, and Diana. Having brought up the general appeal of the circle’s different relationship, I need to acknowledge the best set within it. These three were always the most interesting characters individually, and one of the best things the show ever did was regularly put them together for its B-plots. Whether focusing on Faye and Melissa’s profound loyalty despite their fights, Diana and Melissa coming back together after drifting apart, or Faye and Diana’s combination of power struggles and genuine support, everything to do with this trio was gold. The actresses consistently had the best chemistry out of anyone in the cast and they were my main reason for tuning in every week.
  • The creep factor. While the villains themselves could be hit-or-miss, this show knew how to set a mood — and episodes that landed on the “hit” side were delightfully spooky. Remember when Melissa spent a whole episode being possessed and it was super freaky? Or when Diana’s father made Adam’s feel like he was drowning? Or when ghosts took over Adam and Thomas Dekker clearly had the time of his life acting it out? Or the entirety of the fourth episode “Heather,” which was filled with so many unsettling moments and introduced demons in a fabulously scary and feral way? I lived for it. Scenes like these showed what The Secret Circle was really capable of, and while the generally gloomy atmosphere often made the series feel draggy, there were times when it went for the throat and it was awesome.

The Bad:

  • All of the romances. No, really, ALL OF THEM. You know how I mentioned love triangles earlier? The series leaned on them much too often, frequently overlapping characters within to an absurd degree. There was Diana-Adam-Cassie, Faye-Jake-Cassie, Jake-Cassie-Adam, Eva-Lee-Faye — and it really did not help that none of the proposed individual relationships were appealing, only functioning to make the male characters increasingly unlikable. Jake and Adam both became the worst, albeit in entirely different ways. As previously mentioned, Jake was paired up with both Cassie and Faye: the former ship was an underwhelming “good girl changes bad boy” story you could predict beat-for-beat, while the latter was downright toxic. In Jake’s early episodes, it was established that he was terrible to Faye and “nearly put her in the psych ward” pre-show during their first relationship. Combined with Faye’s unhealthy fixation on getting him back, and it seemed like a textbook emotionally abusive relationship — until the back nine started watering it down to the point where their ‘banter’ was supposed to be cute and the worst thing Jake had ever done, apparently, was stand Faye up at prom. I realize it was only the 2011-12 TV season and pop culture was barely post-Edward Cullen, but come on now.
  • Adam did not fare a whole lot better. His attraction to Cassie was entirely due to them being “written in the stars,” a shamelessly shallow and lazy shortcut that bypassed actual any emotional development for the characters. (I’m told this originated in the book series, but considering how different the TV show is to begin with, there could have still been much more effort to make Cassie and Adam’s connection have any meaning.) When Diana broke up with him, he immediately got manipulative in trying to change her mind, telling her “I don’t want you to find out you’re okay without me.” WHO SAYS THAT? I know they’re teens and inexperienced enough to think that kind of statement is okay, but yikes. The storyline never really seemed to own how co-dependent and selfish Adam was, and it was a maddening thing to see week after week.
  • Cassie’s characterization. Cassie is one of the strangest things to talk about with regards to this show, because it feels so difficult to parse who she is. All of the other main characters have fairly defined personalities, hopes, fears — you understand them and have a general idea of what they would be doing outside the confines of the main story. Meanwhile, Cassie feels relatively blank, her reactions more about moving the plot forward than letting it spring from her choices naturally. If the writing needs her to be reluctant and passive, she’ll do that; if it needs her to be an assertive leader, she can also do that. We get some hints from her mentioning that she was a loner at her old school and that the circle is her first group of friends, but there’s so little sense of what drives her beyond “not dying.” The dark magic arc with Blackwell and Diana in the back half of the season helps somewhat, but her development just isn’t what it could be.
  • Generally uninspired writing decisions. The Secret Circle always seemed to have trouble carving out a unique identity amidst its tropes, being full of generic dead parents and generic bad guys and generic storylines like Jake’s half-baked redemption arc (which, like all-half baked redemption arcs, fundamentally fails to actually deal with anything he did wrong). Villains are thinly sketched as greedy, manipulative, and power-hungry across the board, unless they’re thinly sketched as intolerant and bigoted — it’s like the show flips a coin every episode to decide which cliched motivation to go with as the current threat. Dynamics that should be important get very little fleshing-out, such as Cassie’s to her deceased mother Amelia: this is supposed to have been the defining formative relationship in her life, plus Amelia’s past actions drive so much of the current plot! Yet we get hardly anything to make it feel important. One of my favorite what-ifs involves imagining a version where Amelia Blake is the threatening dark witch instead of John Blackwell, who faked her death in the first episode and becomes the series’ big bad. Cassie dealing with the revelation that the parent who was functionally her best friend for most of her life isn’t actually a good person? Now that would have been fascinating.

The Future?

The Secret Circle ended on an ominous semi-cliffhanger, with Diana leaving the group, both Cassie and Adam being tempted towards darkness, and more Balcoin children heading to town. Executive producer Andrew Miller has previously revealed season two plans that I think sounds pretty intriguing; the contrast between Diana and Cassie was one of the coolest parts of the show, particularly since it initially seemed like Cassie would be the moral one while Diana would develop the potential to snap. I would’ve loved to see their newfound half-sibling relationship continue, particularly considering how Blackwell’s other kids would affect them. I’ve probably made my position on “good guy” Jake clear by now, but evil Adam sounds like it could have been solid if they’d committed fully to it. I’m of two minds about Faye’s ongoing quest for power; that need would have always been a fundamental part of her character, but season one drove the idea into the ground after awhile, and the writers would’ve needed to take it in a different direction than the previous “Faye tries to get more magic, something goes terribly wrong, the circle fights with her about it” formula. Honestly, I would have adored a season that delved into why Faye was so reckless and desperate for more. There was genuine potential for her to really shine. All of these characters could have gone in incredibly compelling directions, and despite my back-and-forth feelings on the first season, I’m still sad about The Secret Circle being cut off. So it goes.

(One thing I am glad to have sidestepped, though: poor Melissa getting put through the ringer of yet another bad relationship. This way, I can just imagine she settled down with Faye and Diana and a couple of cats. Witches need familiars, right?)

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