If they can be counted on for little else in this day and age, TV networks remain reliable in at least one way: Give them a hit show and they’ll fall all over themselves trying to remake it as many times as they can. So when something like Pretty Little Liars comes along and carves out a niche on ABC Family, the powers-that-be set their sights on soapy mysteries chock-full of secrets and deception and telegenic murder-teens.
Twisted is the network's latest attempt to fill out a full-fledged Murder-teen Mystery Theater lineup. Avan Jogia plays Danny Desai, who at the tender age of ten throttled his aunt with a jump rope for reasons he won’t divulge. The series picks up with now-15-year-old Danny leaving juvenile detention and returning to his hometown—against basically everyone’s wishes, including his own. Everybody in both the town and his high school is convinced that Danny’s a cold-blooded killer, including estranged childhood friends Jo (Madelaine Hasson), a buttoned-down outsider, and Lacey (Kylie Bunbury), queen bee of a quasi-mean-girl clique. The brutal murder of a popular classmate on the day of Danny’s return to town only intensifies suspicions and reopens old wounds.
The most effective aspect at the outset was the dynamic among the central trio of Jo, Lacey, and Danny. The script by creator Adam Milch (late of the Greek writers room) showed the most confidence when handling their shifting balances of trust, camaraderie, and repulsion. That a source of tension among the three is their faith in the sanity or lethality of one of them, one who poisoned all their childhoods and now may have murdered another friend, is a doozy of a wrinkle. And of course they’re roiled by typical teen drama fare, like sexual tension and disparities in the social pecking order, as well. The three leads are sincere enough to make it work, selling the awkwardness of a shared but distant history without tipping into melodrama.
The rest of the pilot parceled out backstory and set the primary mysteries into motion with a tone more ominous and broody than pulpy and unhinged. Despite its premise and explicit invocation of sociopathy, nothing’s immediately present in Twisted’s DNA to suggest it shares PLL’s penchant for gleeful absurdity.
Still, seeds of more distinctly soapy machinations were planted. Danny’s mom (Denise Richards) exhibited shades of a social-climbing schemer who may not be shy about using her feminine wiles. His dad had accrued gambling debts before “dying” in a yachting accident where no body was found, so the over-under on his inevitable shocking return is Episode 6. Dead Aunt Tara was a prominent author, a tidbit that’s only worth including if Danny’s secret motive tied into her celebrity or some adjacent scandal.
With both implicit and explicit nods to Hitchcock, Twisted seems to have ambitions of becoming more of a cerebral thriller than a YA spin on Dexter. I’m not sure it’s got the chops to match those convictions, but it’s intriguing so far, if only for the sheer curiosity of how dark the writers are willing to take things. The reveal at the end of the premiere certainly paints the show into a corner that will require some narrative gymnastics to get out of. If Twisted can preserve the promising relationship at its core while ramping up the plot momentum—rather than jumping through hoops to string out the mysteries for too long—it could grow into an entertaining summer watch.
– How close are we to Netflix establishing “TV Series With Plots Set Into Motion by the Murder of a Teenage Girl” as a category? There have to be enough of them by now, right?
– Speaking of the poor late Regina, it’s a little troubling that the only character to exhibit confident sexual agency was the girl who was sacrificed on the altar of inciting incident. Something about that rang a bit too ‘80s-slasher-flick for me.
– The pilot did a nice job of creating ambiguity about Danny’s nature, most effectively in the scene where he nipped a fistfight in the bud by whispering a (presumably) bone-chilling threat into the aggressor’s ear. Signaling genuine danger, or turning his rep to his advantage in order to avoid violence?
– One key element of primetime soapery still missing: a clear shit-stirring antagonist. The sheriff is too sympathetic, the background lunkheads too nondescript. That may be the role the writers have in mind for Lacey’s BMOC boyfriend Grey Damon, who will be playing a teenager well into his 30s at this rate.
– “They let you watch Glee in prison?” “It’s part of our punishment.”
– “Gotta tell my grandkids I did something stupid in high school, right?”
– “Didn’t you hear? I’m a bitch now.”
What'd you think of Twisted's premiere? Will you be back for Episode 2?