Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Pilot Review: Twisted

Twisted (Tuesdays at 9:00 on ABC Family; Premieres June 11)

I'm torn over Twisted, the newest teen boilerplate mystery/drama from ABC Family. On the one hand, I'm semi-intrigued by the characters and (less so) the plot; on the other hand, I don't really care enough to want to watch much more. It has a strong enough central hook for me to commit to the first ten episodes this summer (there also isn't much more interesting scripted fare to choose from this time of year), but the mystery isn't nearly clever or deep enough to last multiple seasons the way the one on Pretty Little Liars has. Still, it's a fun distraction despite its shortcomings and multiple flaws.

The series opens on two 11 year-old girls playing at their friend Danny's house. Moments later, their young friend emerges from his house holding a weapon he has just used to murder his aunt. Cut to five years later as Danny (Avan Jogia, Victorious) is released from state custody and matriculated into his hometown high school. Naturally, there is some resistance from the student body at having a convicted murderer roaming the halls, and they take to calling him "Socio." But Danny's return is hardest on his two childhood friends, Jo (Madelaine Hasson, The Finder), who became a social outcast following the murder; and Lacey (Kylie Bunbury, The Sitter), who became popular after distancing herself from Jo, Danny, and the murder. Danny tries to mend his relationship with Jo and Lacey, and he starts to succeed at a party one night. He offers to drive Lacey home and ends up spending the night, despite the fact that hanging out with "Socio" could steal away Lacey's popularity. And that same night a classmate is murdered, making Danny the primary suspect.

Twisted has some good ideas to work with. If this were about how children deal with grief and tragedy, or the extremes of being a social outcast and how teenagers deal with that, Twisted could be a really interesting show on a level much deeper than what you'd typically find in a by-the-numbers young adult thriller. But Twisted isn't that deep, no matter how much I wish it was. It's very shallow entertainment, which cheapens itself even further by the pilot's end. We learn through the course of the premiere that there is some connection between Danny's aunt and the murdered classmate: a necklace. Danny sees the student wearing a necklace and tenses up, and later that student dies. The necklace is a terrible mystery cliche and immediately brings to mind secret societies, which I desperately hope is not Twisted's endgame. But then again, secret societies are a favored trope of YA literature, and this is a show meant for teenagers, so I wouldn't be surprised if that were the outcome. Teenagers may also be more willing to forgive Twisted for taking the easy way out. Had the series kept on the "Socio" path and explored why an 11 year-old might be driven to murder, how a child killer is treated by society, et cetera, it could have been a great show. But instead, it becomes a standard murder mystery with some small strains of drama between the three leads. Lacey holds Danny's alibi, but will she give it up if it means all her friends abandon her for associating with him? Will Danny bring Jo and Lacey back together after many years spent forgetting about their friendship? What will become of the strange love triangle between Danny, Jo, and Lacey? It's all generic teen drama stuff beyond the dual murders.

If ABC Family is lucky, their young audience will also be more forgiving of the laughable acting on display. Jogia is a seductive presence when he's not speaking; he's exotic-looking and enigmatic in the moments when he's just watching his peers. His stoicism is striking, and the evenness with which he tells people about his time in a juvenile facility, or talking about his nickname is powerful. But that's about as good as it gets in Twisted. Both female leads are written to be cartoonishly opposite, and those differences are played up to the nth degree. Jo is brooding and moody, so she mumbles a lot and keeps her eyes cast down and plays with her sleeves (always black, naturally); Lacey is bubbly and popular, so she has all the "mean girl" jokes and walks with a bounce in her step and has a high-toned inflection to most of her words. The script from first-time creator Adam Milch, a newbie whose only other writing credits are a couple episodes of Greek, is too weak for the two unseasoned leading ladies to make work well. They come across fairly wooden and robotic as a result. Denise Richards has a small supporting role as Danny's mother and is surprisingly effective; Kathy Najimy plays the school's psychology teacher, and she can't make her character's quirky jokes work much better than anyone else. There's an overall feeling of lethargy in the pilot's performances, and it weighs down the plot.

Still, there's enough here to make me want to know what happens. I don't anticipate waiting with bated breath for the mystery's conclusion the way many do on a weekly basis with Pretty Little Liars, Twisted's lead-in, but it's just interesting enough that I want to know how it ends, even if it might be a chore getting there.

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