Since it first debuted the college-set series Greek in 2007, ABC Family has continued to make a name for itself with original scripted programming. It's no longer a network just for children, and it's got a lot more going on than the long-running 13 Days of Halloween celebration. Most notably is the ever-popular Pretty Little Liars, which centers on a group of teen girls drawn together by a dead friend and a network of secrets and lies. The series is still going strong four seasons in, despite an increasingly convoluted web of red herrings and deceit. And to network executives, that sort of set-up means one thing: spin-off! Enter Ravenswood, the supernatural baby cousin of Pretty Little Liars that premiered tonight on the heels of PLL's annual Halloween special.
Not every successful TV series needs or deserves a spin-off. Sometimes they do very well—think Frasier, a spin-off of Cheers that ran for 11 seasons, or Angel, a darker and more adult spin-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that stood on its own for five seasons. But sometimes they tank, like Joanie Loves Chachi (a spin-off of Happy Days), or Caprica (a prequel spin-off of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica that lasted only one season), or, as NBC knows all too well, Joey (a spin-off of Friends). It's often difficult to tell whether or not a spin-off will succeed, but there are two essential pieces to the puzzle that must be present for a spin-off of the non-CSI variety to be successful: 1.) a compelling and charismatic lead character, and 2.) an interesting premise.
Sometimes a very strong character can help balance a shaky premise and vice versa, but that's not always the case. The CW is currently experiencing this problem with The Originals, it's new spin-off The Vampire Diaries; even though Klaus was an interesting character and fan favorite on TVD, he's not necessarily a good lead, and we still don't know whether the series will be successful. But does a spin-off even have a chance if both its lead character and its premise start out weak? Well, early on, that's what Ravenswood will be trying to find out.
Let me get this out of the way early: I really enjoyed Ravenswood's pilot. But I have a number of concerns about whether it marks the beginning of a compelling show. Bear with me.
Caleb Rivers (Tyler Blackburn) has been a supporting player on Pretty Little Liars for a few seasons now. He's the boyfriend of one of the show's four main characters, Hanna Marin (Ashley Benson), but he's essentially still a mystery to viewers. We know he grew up in foster homes and was only recently reunited with both of his birth parents, and we know he's pretty great at hacking technology, but we don't know much else. This makes Caleb a great choice to lead a spin-off, but also a terrible one. His backstory is still vague enough that it's possible his family linage leads back to Ravenswood, and since hasn't got much of a family, he can easily leave PLL's Rosewood to hop a bus to the spooky town next door. But no matter his likability index, I don't think he's a strong-enough character on his own to anchor his own show.
What's more, it's very clear that Ravenswood is ABC Family's answer to the popular supernatural genre that's been successful for The CW in the past; the network is attempting to capitalize on the momentum created by the vampires, werewolves, and witches craze before everyone finally has had enough of it and it dies out. And that's okay—if you like that sort of thing. Lucky for ABC Family, I am unashamed to admit my love for all things teen drama and all things supernatural. Mixing the two is basically my kryptonite. And I think Ravenswood probably checks enough boxes that it will be a successful series for the network, whose target demographic is generally younger than the broadcast networks'. But that doesn't mean it's that good yet.
The premise of the series revolves around a mysterious curse that's affected the town of Ravenswood for generations. The pilot was very confusing in both the set-up and the execution of this story; Caleb arrived in town with a new character named Miranda (Nicole Gale Anderson), and the two are apparently friendly enough that he's staying in town to protect her at Hanna's request. As I'm writing this, Pretty Little Liars' annual Halloween special has yet to air—it wasn't screened for press—and I assuming that some of the Ravenswood pilot's more head-scratchy elements will make sense once I've seen it. But even as a PLL fan I felt like I'd just walked into a French class after taking Spanish for three years. You recognize similar patterns, but it's still confusing. I can only imagine that non-PLL viewers were pretty lost.
The pilot attempted to introduce both characters and explain their reasons for being in Ravenswood via a voiceover at the beginning of the episode. The bottom line is that it wasn't enough, and that's bad. If seasoned fans of the parent series are confused, new viewers who stumble across the spin-off while flipping channels—or who think the premise sounds interesting on paper—don't even stand a chance. We all hate it when spin-offs spend a lot of time rehashing things we learned in the original series, but it's a simple necessity, and Ravenswood seems to have forgotten that.
One element of Ravenswood that both PLL and non-PLL fans are equally in the dark about is the mysterious curse that's supposed to be the entire foundation of the series—it was hardly explained in the pilot. On one hand, giving away too much information too soon would negate the need for a series at all, so that's somewhat forgivable. On the other hand, PLL has often struggled with the pacing of its mysteries—so the pilot's withholding of info isn't a good sign—not to mention the fact that the curse currently sounds pretty lame. Five teenagers all die after a soldier returns home from war unscathed, his entire troop having perished in combat. Repeat every X amount of years. Guys, that's like the most boring curse ever. There better be a damn good reason someone cursed this town. I want some ridiculous, juicy, totally teen-drama reason it even exists, because as it stands, there's nothing particularly compelling going on here. The moldy ghost woman that's haunting Caleb and Miranda is fun, and the car plunging into the river in the final moments of the pilot was fun, but we're going to need a lot more spooky, a lot more scary, and a lot more action-y things to happen before this story is actually worthy of a series. Pretty Little Liars has proven that it can still do shocking reveals (see: the Season 3 summer finale), so let's hope this trait carries over to Ravenswood.
On the character front, aside from a few standouts—particularly Britne Oldford's Remy, whose father runs the local newspaper and whose mother is an army vet who just returned from overseas (insert flashing neon arrow here)—the rest of the characters are rather bland. Miranda, who arrives in Ravenswood looking for her only living relative—her uncle, who put her in the foster care system at the age of three when her parents died—isn't all that interesting, and it's obvious her family story is going to be a main plot point, so that's kind of disappointing. She also complains a lot, and I didn't feel any emotion when she confronted her uncle about why he essentially abandoned her. Oddly enough, though the uncle character wasn't a big part of the pilot, he was one of its most intriguing figures. His name is Raymond (Steven Cabral), he runs a funeral home, and he's exactly the type of person you'd expect to run a funeral home in a creepy city plagued by a supernatural curse. So he's worth keeping an eye on for his quiet creepiness alone.
The remaining two characters, siblings Luke (Brett Dier) and Olivia (Merritt Patterson), recently lost their father, and the citizens of Ravenswood seem to believe that their mother murdered him, which makes them social outcasts. So far, I really like the idea of this particular storyline; the introduction, with the Black Widow spray-painted onto the tombstone, was full of potential. But other than that, we've only seen Luke and Olivia complain about it, and they have little to no personality. If the writers can flesh that out, it might make for a compelling arc. I must say that I did appreciate the Glee-esque slushie to Olivia's face during the parade, though. I would question why the parade was held at night, but this is Ravenswood, where people throw parties in cemeteries, so I'll chalk it up to weird town shenanigans and keep moving.
Overall, aside from the initial confusion due to Ravenswood's rushed set-up, the show is clearly its own series, with a different tone and feel than Pretty Little Liars. The events are also separate from the parent series, though I'm sure we'll see occasional cameos from the Rosewood girls—especially Hanna, considering her relationship with Caleb is still a thing (for now). But I don't think viewers need to like one show to like the other. Many people have already pointed out that it doesn't make sense for Ravenswood and Pretty Little Liars to exist in the same universe if only one of them has supernatural elements, but that's easily explained away: Just because the events of PLL aren't supernatural in nature doesn't mean that supernatural things don't exist in the show's world. It just means PLL's events are more rooted in human nature than weird magical phenomena. And besides, it's not like there are werewolves running around this new town—it's a curse and a rotting woman hiding behind curtains, trying to drown good-looking young men in bathtubs, or pulling Rebekah Mikaelsons and making cars swerve off of bridges to kill pretty teenagers. Ravenswood is like, supernatural-adjacent at best.
Ravenswood has a lot of work to do if it wants to become a weekly staple on DVRs across America, but because it's a series on ABC Family, that shouldn't actually be all that surprising. The show isn't trying to be perfect television. It's a teen drama in the same vein as most of the network's other programming. There's unintentionally hilarious dialogue, and almost everyone is making bad decisions, but for fans of the network and fans of PLL, it'll probably work just fine. If you're looking to ABC Family for serious quality programming, you should probably rethink your life choices anyway.
– Would you stay in a town after seeing your name and face on a tombstone?
– You guys are so lucky I refrained from making an "unkindness of ravens" joke.
– Life is more fun without context:
... "Come on, let's go take pictures of our tombstones."
... "I don't want my best friend getting bugs in her teeth."
... "Your wind had hands; my shower curtain had shoulders."
What'd you think of Ravenswood's series premiere?
AIRED ON 2/4/2014
Season 1 : Episode 10