It is hard for me to divorce The Secret Circle from The Vampire Diaries, and I think most people will feel the same. L.J. Smith wrote the source material for both shows; Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec executive produce both shows. Secret Circle is about witches; Vampire Diaries has about a 50/25/25 split going between vampires, witches, and werewolves. Both focus on a recently-orphaned high school girl who finds herself in the middle of extraordinary circumstances.
Cassie moves to a small fishing town in Washington state to live with her grandmother after her mother, Amelia, dies in a nasty house fire. Cassie's father died before she was born, and her mother never visited her home, so this is all new to Cassie. She is quickly "befriended" by a circle of friends who turn out to be witches. Cassie is brimming with untapped power, and needed to complete their (say it with me now) secret circle. All the kids have lost at least one parent, presumably victims to the former generation's own witchcraft. The circle consists of Faye, the "mean girl" whose mother is the high school principal; Faye's lackey, Melissa; Diana, a nicer girl who is presumed to become Cassie's new BFF; Diana's boyfriend, Adam, who believes he is fated to be with Cassie; and Nick, Cassie's next-door neighbor. Adults of note include Jane, Cassie's grandma; Dawn, the high-school principal and Faye's mom; Ethan, Adam's dad and Amelia's "one true love;" and Charlie, Diana's dad and the one who set Amelia's house on fire.
A couple years ago, I wrote this about The Vampire Diaries: "I honestly thought it was going to be another teen throwaway, capitalizing on the success of Twilight." Replace Twilight with Vampire Diaries, and those sum up my feelings about Circle pretty succinctly. However, in that same review, I wrote that I was "pleasantly surprised" by Vampire Diaries; Secret Circle is pretty much what I expected it to be.
Generally, I try to give new shows a few episodes before I pass judgement, but the CW only provided the pilot episode and I know you guys need to know if you should clear space on your DVR for this show. I can see that Circle has the same potential for darkness that Diaries is now known for. The pilot opens with a witch setting a house ablaze, and other magical goings-on include a torrential lightening storm, a spellcraft near-drowning, and Cassie nearly blowing up in her car. Williamson has said in interviews that things hit breakneck speed around episode three, and I believe him.
The main factor working against The Secret Circle that Diaries really had going for it was the cast. While she is not obnoxious or annoying (yet), Britt Robertson as a lead just does not have the same charisma and subtlety that Nina Dobrev brings to her role of Elena. Similarly, our two young male "leads" Adam and Nick (played by Thomas Dekker and Louis Hunter respectively) and generic and interchangeable. Phoebe Tonkin feels like she could be a standout, playing Faye both as a power-hungry brat and someone who truly means well - in a warped sort of way.
Verdict? Not in yet. I'm going to give Circle six episodes to get really good; Williamson claims he only needs three. It was episode six of Diaries that had me fully hooked. I owe Circle the courtesy of that many episodes. Don't let me down, Williamson.
The Secret Circle debuts September 15th at 9pm on the CW.