Thursday, November 14, 2013

Pilot Season: Witches of East End (I'm Laughing At It Not With It)

When you watch a television show for the first time, there are good signs and bad signs. Things that make you go, "Maybe I'll keep watching this," and signs that make you go, "Er, no, on second thought, better not."

And then there are the signs where you think, "Well, on the plus side, I greatly enjoyed that. On the down side, not in a nice way." Because you're a bad person and sometimes it's a lot of fun to watch terrible things.

On a completely unrelated note, let's talk about Witches of East End.

Okay, so going into this there were a lot of indications that it wasn't going to be the best show ever. For starters, it's on Lifetime. Not to diss on the network or anything, but it's not really known as a repository for top notch drama. I mean, some of their stuff turns out surprisingly good, like Drop Dead Diva, but most of it doesn't. Just being honest here. And in no way am I still bitter that they made a movie about my high school and grossly decontextualized the whole thing.

At any rate, Witches of East End is something a bit different for Lifetime, in that it's a soapy, supernatural nightime drama, about a family of witches living in the Hamptons and trying to survive some shapeshifter's desire to kill them all. Also, everyone on the show is deliriously attractive, which isn't new, and there's a lack of killer husbands or sons (so far), which is.

The show follows the Beauchamp family. Joanna (Julia Ormond), the mother, is a pleasant, middle-aged art teacher who just so happens to be a really powerful, kind of immortal witch. Who might be murdering people. Maybe. The pilot opens on Joanna drawing symbols on the ground in a park, then proceeding to brutally murder two of her neighbors. But the eyes are weird, which isn't a good sign.

We then cut to her two adult daughters, Freya (Jenna Dewan-Tatum) and Ingrid (Rachel Boston) getting ready for Freya's engagement party. It seems that Freya is having second thoughts about the wedding, not because she doesn't love her fiance, but because she had a really intense dream about kissing some other dude, and she doesn't know what it means. It becomes immediately clear that neither of the girls knows about magic, and also that Freya is the flake to Ingrid's level-headed smarty-pants sister.

The girls do eventually manage to turn up at the engagement party, much to the joy of Freya's fiance, Dash (Eric Winter). Dash, who seems to come from old money, is happy to be able to introduce Freya to his brother, Killian (Daniel DiTomasso), who just so happens to be the dude from her dream. They end up making out. Because reasons.

Ingrid, meanwhile, is the awkward sister, struggling to connect with the other party-goers and eventually finding out that the nice guy she's crushing on, Adam (Jason Noble), may or may not have asked her out earlier in the year, only to have her shut him down. Hard. Whoops. Also, we find out that Ingrid is a buttoned up librarian, which just seems like lazy writing, in all honesty.

But later on at the party, Ingrid does stumble onto something. Specifically, a photograph of a woman who looks alarmingly like her mother, standing next to some other woman wearing a very distinctive necklace. Hmm. That's not suspicious at all.

The plot moves on and we see the girls go about their daily lives. Ingrid has a friend who's struggling with fertility treatments, and wants Ingrid's witchy help (Ingrid did her dissertation on historical witchcraft). Ingrid eventually agrees to do a fake spell, but, weirdly enough, her friend actually gets pregnant right after. Ingrid is suspicious. And rightly so.

Freya, on the other hand, isn't very suspicious about any of this, but she is confused. While she loves Dash, she also really wants to keep making out with Killian, and Killian isn't helping matters much. They end up hanging out at the bar where Freya works, and there's this whole seduction thing going on. Also Killian lives on a boat, which is supposed to be romantic, but speaking from experience, is mostly smelly and unpleasant.

I know, I have the soul of a true artist. A born poet. And also of someone who doesn't like sleeping in a bed that smells like mold and gasoline.

Complicating matters incredibly is the arrival of a mysterious black cat, that, when hit by a car, turns into a naked woman. Said naked woman then disappears from the morgue, only to reappear, wearing only a lab coat, on Joanna's front porch. Surprise! It's Joanna's long lost sister, Wendy (Madchen Amick), who's turned up to tell the family that someone is trying to kill them, for good this time. Also, Wendy appears to be cursed to live like a cat, with nine lives. It is unclear how many of those lives she has left.

And this is where the plot really gets going. We find out that Joanna and the girls are under a curse as well, a curse to relive their time over and over again. The girls grow up, they learn about magic, somehow the magic gets them killed, then Joanna becomes pregnant again and has to go through it over and over and over, always as the only one who remembers. It's pretty brutal. And, honestly, quite interesting. 

But something is different this time around, and Wendy can tell. This time, Joanna has bound the girls' magic, in the hopes that without any magical interference, they will actually have time to grow up. It's a decent plan, but time's run out. Someone is trying to kill them, and will stop at nothing to do so. The girls need to find out about magic, and fast. Also, upon meeting their long-lost aunt, some things fall into place for Ingrid. Most notably, who the other woman in the old photograph is.

Just one problem. The victims from the park at the beginning of the episode - well, one of them wasn't dead, and she's willing to testify that Joanna is the one who killed her husband. Joanna is arrested, Wendy is stabbed, and Freya is kidnapped by an ex-lover and transported into an old-timey photograph in the bathroom of the bar where she works. It's up to Ingrid, who only just got over the whole "You're a witch!" thing to save everyone.

And that's where the episode ends.

For starters, I don't think anyone is laboring under the impression that this show is high art, which is good, because it isn't. It's poorly written, mediocrely acted, and abysmally shot. But it is appealing. I mean, maybe this is the side of me that watches America's Next Top Model speaking up, but this show is kind of really fun. Not good for you fun, nope. This is trashy, junk food television fun.

Is that a bad thing? I honestly don't know. 

I mean, from a feminist perspective, this show is both the pits and also not the pits. While Freya is a character whose sole defining feature so far is her desire to use her marriage to define her life and her inability to decide between the two men she's sleeping with, she's also a funny, sweet woman, who exercises her sexual freedom with confidence and, let's be honest, skill. I mean, I may not agree with some (any) of the choices she makes, but I respect her right to make them, and make them she does.

And then there's Ingrid, who fills out nearly every box on the "awkward female character" checklist, even down to the "announcing that you have a wedgie in a crowded room" one. Ingrid is so totally a stereotype, but that doesn't necessarily make her a bad character. She's smart, funny, and sure, Hollywood homely, but she's relatable. And while she doesn't actually believe in magic, she is willing to try it just in case. She's willing to race off to save her sister with only the barest clue of how to do it, and she's willing to make herself look stupid if it will help someone she cares about. I like that.

I don't like Joanna as much, but that's because, as the holder of the exposition, we don't really get to see much of her character in this episode. I do like what I see, though, as a woman who's lived for hundreds of years, and might be ready to stop doing that. Wendy is the much more developed character of the two, and she's a bit of a puzzle form a feminist perspective. On the one hand, she's sassy and snarky and I love her, but on the other, she does spend a lot of her time as naked eye candy. And on yet another hand, that nudity is repeatedly commented on as being gratuitous. So, I don't know.

Which feels like my mantra towards the whole show, really. I like that it's a show where women have to save women from the evil machinations of other women, and the men are just there for eye candy and the occasional plot point. But I don't necessarily like that the show is really more of a sexy, frothy, confection than anything substantial. But then again, that could just be a matter of taste.

So I guess it comes down to you. If this sounds like fun, then you should watch it. If it doesn't, don't. There's really not much more I can add than that. Well, I can add that Wendy is possibly my favorite new character of the season, but that's irrelevant to whether or not you should watch the show. She's awesome. Just saying.

Love her.

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