I'll buy freaky ghost witches and a haunted town. I'm onboard for mysterious funeral directors and terrifying apparitions that knock brushes off nightstands and stand in the middle of the road. I'll even, just barely, accept that a small-town newspaper still runs a robust classified ads section. But Ravenswood lost me when its hunky teenage male lead decided to take a bath. Instead of (or maybe in addition to?) a shower. "I'm gonna go take a bath," he told his female nonsexual companion. And then he eased his way into the tub, like someone in a commercial about how moms deserve to treat themselves once in a while. Come on, Ravenswood. That is beyond the realm of credulity. Teen boys are not bath people.
On a show so uninspired, it's the little things that really stand out.
Ravenswood (ABC Family, tonight at 9 p.m.) is a spinoff of the wildly successful Pretty Little Liars, and it premieres tonight on the heels of its predecessor's annual Halloween special. After PLL's Caleb (Tyler Blackburn, the aforementioned tub enthusiast) finds a headstone with his name on it — and somehow a photo that looks exactly like him — he decides to stay in the spooky enclave of Ravenswood, just to get to the bottom of things. He's joined by the orphaned Miranda (Nicole Gale Anderson, better known as villain Kelly Parker on Make It or Break It), who herself has ties to the town: Her creepy uncle runs the local funeral home, and she's hoping he can tell her more about her family. That uncle is recalcitrant and very weird! Just like everyone else the newcomers encounter in the haunted town. Everyone's keeping a secret, it seems, and at least some of these secrets are about ghosts and murderers.
Where PLL is soapy and audacious, Ravenswood (in its pilot, at least) seems warmed over, like an American Horror Story: Juniors. It doesn't help that the town's only friendly and helpful resident, Remy, is played by AHS alum Britne Olford. (She helps her dad out at the local newspaper sometimes.) But American Horror Story is partly satirizing the mechanics of the horror genre (and this season some aspects of the teen genre, too), while Ravenswood is just playing into them. The show meets every generic expectation. Are teen shows legally required to have characters named Luke or Dylan? Ravenswood has one of each.
The show's creators have called Ravenswood "Rod Serling for teens," which means either the pilot is a serious misrepresentation of the rest of the series, or executive producer Joseph Dougherty hasn't watched The Twilight Zone recently. Because The Twilight Zone is deeply political: Beyond the fun of its monsters-of-the-week, The Twilight Zone is a show that opposed jingoism, that reflected the nuclear panic of the early sixties, and urged viewers to reject marketing messages and mass consumerism. And not by coincidence — by design. Ravenswood will in all likelihood be a functioning teen horror series, but those looking for a radical antiracist message or a lasting parable about the dangers of concentrated power will be disappointed.
Part of Pretty Little Liars' addictive charm — beyond its bananatown costuming, which is a treat all its own — is its pathological refusal to solve its central mystery: Who is "A," and why is this person (or persons) tormenting our central characters? Ravenswood purposefully doesn't have that kind of crazy who-killed–Laura Palmer–esque central mystery, which makes the show less of a risk: It's hard, if not actually impossible, to keep up a central mystery! But Ravenswood could really use that kind of a gamble, or at least some big move to let us know that there's a little more to the series than fright-gags and ill-considered personal hygiene rituals.