This article contains spoilers for The Secret Circle.
Witches have always been the least loved subgenre of fantasy television, and last week another one bit the dust. The Secret Circle, designed for the CW as a direct sister show for the uber-popular The Vampire Diaries, was cancelled after just one season and, while hopes that another network will pick it up are currently brewing (excuse the pun), it’s just the most recent example of witches failing to tap into the public consciousness the way vampires, werewolves and other ghouls seem to be able to. Was there something wrong with The Secret Circle itself, or is it a deeper problem with all things Wicca that turns people off?
First, you’ll have to excuse me if a large amount of The Vampire Diaries comparisons slip into this season recap, as it’s hard not to pit the two against each other now they have gone in such different directions. Based on young adult novels from the same author, made for the same network to air on the same night, and produced by the same team (including Kevin Williamson of Scream and Dawson’s Creek fame), the two are sibling shows in the truest sense of the word. Based on the success of the former, who can blame telly-land for thinking The Secret Circle would have the same cultural impact?
But, as it stands, they are vastly different shows. One has just finished its third season to grand applause, while the other has meandered in popularity and received a lukewarm (at best) reaction from critics. Is it fair to compare a newborn to its older sibling? Not at all – we can all remember how mixed early results on The Vampire Diaries were back in its first season. There was also no cinematic equivalent (where TVD had Twilight) to lead fans in gently. It was clear from the chequered past of TV witches that the network would have a bigger fight on its hands, and the fight has apparently been fruitless.
Our protagonist is a normal girl who, in the first five minutes of the pilot, loses her mother to an arson attack and moves to Chance Harbor, the mysterious childhood home of her parents. Cassie is played by Britt Robinson from Life Unexpected, the similarly cancelled CW series that was originally meant to be the ‘new Gilmore Girls‘ (sounding familiar?), and her portrayal of the character may have played a huge role in the show’s cancellation. I’m not saying she’s a bad actress, but a series needs a capable, endearing protagonist, and unfortunately Robinson didn’t tick those boxes often enough.
When she begins to explore her new home, several regulars present themselves to her in turn, establishing their stock personalities and potential roles within the titular circle. Once everyone and their shifty parents, have been introduced, Cassie learns of her witchy heritage, and peril ensues. We have Faye, the bitchy mean girl intent on getting as much power as possible for herself; Diana, the resident nice girl who welcomes Cassie with open arms; Adam, Diana’s boyfriend who happens to be destined for Cassie, and Melissa, Faye’s sidekick and floozy to Nick, the sixth and final member.
If I sound flip, that’s because the early stages of The Secret Circle were less than promising. Where other fantasy shows had fast paced action and subversive rules and characters, this new arrival seemed intent on establishing its old-fashioned style. Say what you want about Charmed, but it put witches onto mainstream television in an original and entertaining way, and The Secret Circle had to up its game if it wanted to stick around. I fear that this shaky start was the ultimate reason for the show’s cancellation, as viewers turned off by early episodes quite possibly never tuned back in.
But if they had, they would have seen a show dedicated to improving, adapting, and pruning its various issues, becoming more confident and entertaining week by week. We started to see a bravery borrowed from The Vampire Diaries, and things quickly changed. The circle was unexpectedly bound in the second episode, making everything feel a little safe and boring, so they killed off a member – Nick – and magically upped the danger quota. To replace him they brought in male ‘totty’ Chris Zylka, who was a middling success, and made him a duplicitous double-agent for the villainous witch-hunters.
The magic itself, surely the backbone of any show about witches, took a little longer to sort out. While chanting and hand-holding worked just fine in the campy world of Charmed, here it seemed mis-judged and outdated, destroying any credibility the series had clawed for itself and highlighting the lack of special effects budget at their disposal. This is pretty disastrous for any fantasy series, but can prove fatal to one that hasn’t yet found its footing elsewhere. Dark magic (more staring, less chanting) was quickly introduced, and it watered down the issues the writers had with updating spells and enchantments for a modern audience.
But the biggest change-over, and one I applaud wholeheartedly, was the way the show dealt with its love triangles (yes, plural). Having watched The Vampire Diaries since the start, recapping it for this site for over a year, the way in which writers choose to tackle their love stories becomes incredibly important. We’re introduced to one right at the start, as Adam and Diana’s cosy partnership is interrupted by the fateful union between Adam and Cassie. The problem is, Britt Robinson and Thomas Dekker have now chemistry to speak of, and Shelley Hennig’s Diana is so darn likeable it’s hard to root for anyone else.
So, what to do? Well, firstly, they brought in Zylka’s Jake, supposedly attracted to Cassie but with a history between him and Faye. That didn’t work either. Phoebe Thompson was incredibly fun throughout the series, relishing her bad girl role so much that we couldn’t help but join in. She’s got charisma to spare so, put her together with the stiff and personality-free Zylka, and it makes a much more attractive coupling than with the equally earnest and boring Cassie. It was becoming clear that Cassie might be better off on her own, so an epic break-up episode, by way of ancient curse and anti-love potion, served to break all ties with Adam, while offering her vulnerability and heartbreak as a reason to root for her at last.
But a lot of people weren’t really tuning in for the kids, as the tangled web of the past had emerged was by far the most interesting aspect of The Secret Circle. Unlike most teen shows, the parents were a huge part of the ensemble, and Charles (Diana’s father) and Dawn (Faye’s mother) provided much welcome shades of grey throughout. We see Charles kill Cassie’s mother in the pilot, but clever characterisation, and a lovely relationship with his daughter, has us rooting for him to come out on top at various points. As the show ended, he was all but redeemed, and his and Dawn’s motives (if not their actions) largely justified.
The season-long mystery the younger generation are trying to solve relates to an accident 16-years ago when at least one of their parents was killed. Aside from the ongoing threat of witch-hunters, the circle also has to worry about the return of John Blackwell, whose arrival late in the season triggered a sharp increase in quality that may now have been wasted. We hear so much about Blackwell, Cassie’s father and the man behind the boatyard fire, during the first two thirds of the series that when he finally does arrive, viewers are encouraged to second-guess everything. I can’t remember a series that so tightly concealed parts of its characters so well, for so long, and the last arc of the show really was something special.
But, alas, we’ll probably never get to see how it would have panned out, courtesy of the cruel and familiar axe blow of cancellation. If a wildcard renewal for ‘most improved show’ were given out each year, then I’m certain The Secret Circle would have won it hands down, and it’s a shame that this carefully crafted, and clearly cared for, show was cut short just as it was finding its feet. There’s also the argument that an uneven first season that couldn’t live up to the hype deserves to go, but the finale cruelly left fans with so many new questions, enticing developments and newly compelling relationships to ponder.
Should ABC Family pick the show up, which is rumoured, I think it would be a very smart investment. Whether, with Blackwell gone and a kitchen-sink approach to end of season cliff-hangers, The Secret Circle could have held on to its momentum much longer is unknown, but I sure would have liked to have see it. As it stands, the series is a neat little fantasy show that slipped under the radar this year, and comes recommended to fans of this thoroughly downtrodden subgenre.