The Nine Lives Of Chloe King debuts tonight on ABC Family at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Comparing The Nine Lives Of Chloe King, ABC Family’s new book-based supernatural teen soap, to Teen Wolf, MTV’s movie-based supernatural teen soap, offers a pretty solid example of how inherently trashy material can be sort of fun when played just right. I’m not going to give Chloe King a wild recommendation (unless you’re a 14-year-old girl, in which case you probably don’t need my recommendation), but I had quite a bit of fun with it all the same, especially once the show got past the distractingly pilot-y first half of tonight’s first episode and settled into a nice groove of assassins chasing the titular heroine around and boys trying to kiss her. It’s not The Vampire Diaries and it’s not Buffy, but it’s seen both of those shows, and it sort of knows that it has to do more to be like them than just cast people who look pretty and have them smolder.
Skyler Samuels plays Chloe King, a girl on the verge of her 16th birthday. Chloe’s your typical good girl, and she’s feeling the pangs of never having done anything “wrong.” For her birthday, she longs to walk on the dark side a little bit, so she drags her friends Amy (Grace Phipps) and Paul (Ki Hong Lee) out to a club, where she meets a guy who looks sort of like a 35-year-old investment banker. The two of them dance and as she leaves the club, she turns around to give the guy—Xavier—a kiss. It’s a great kiss, but once it’s over, Chloe’s life starts to go a little nuts.
It should be said here that things are already getting slightly strange for Chloe, even before that kiss. The episode opens—in one of my least favorite ways to open an episode—with a man in a black jacket pushing her off the top of a tall tower and sending her plummeting to her death, then cuts back two days earlier. So we know that whatever Chloe’s up to, it can only end poorly. Add to that the weird powers she seems to keep developing, like the ability to perform a TV-friendly version of parkour or the fact that when she’s hanging out with Grace and Paul before the club, discussing her birthday plans, she can do a tightrope walk along the back of a park bench without falling off. She’s also got super hearing and, uh, claws. I’m not going to directly spoil just what’s going on with Chloe (though the promotional department is), but if you look at the title of the show and my description above and if you’re a fan of Val Lewton and/or Paul Schrader, you can probably figure it out.
I’ll state this up front: Tonight’s pilot is very, very clunky. The show very clearly wants to have dialogue that’s a mixture of Buffy and Gilmore Girls, and it just tries too hard. (Around the episode’s middle, love interest Brian, played by Friday Night Lights’ Grey Damon, has to say a typically quirky line of dialogue, and it sounds like he’s enunciating it syllable for syllable, so confused is he by its very existence.) When Chloe and her mom—Amy Pietz, who often seems like she’s starring in a different, much more boring show called, So You’ve Decided To Raise A Supernatural Teenager—say goodbye to each other, one says “Love you,” and the other says, “Implied.” Chloe’s mom talks about Chloe’s long-gone father (who’s probably Fox Mulder, if the end of the pilot is any indication) picking Chloe up from an orphanage in the Ukraine like he found a sad puppy at the pound. Chloe and Amy explain things they already know to each other, and when Chloe is confronted by the mysterious Alek, a Ukrainian who may know something about her dark past, the Buffy-ish quips are often terrible.
But somewhere around the pilot’s halfway mark, it settles into a nice groove, a groove that continues into next week’s episode two. There’s not really an attempt to set up a week-to-week episode type here, but pilot writer and executive producer (having developed the series from books written by Celia Thomson) Dan Berendsen stops trying so hard and simply lets his appealing cast have fun with each other. This is not television that is going to reinvent the medium, and it probably won’t work anywhere but in the summer, but as a silly teenage soap, it’s not half bad. The lack of in-episode storylines—essentially everything is serialized—will probably hurt the show in the long run, since I doubt having the same assassin chase Chloe all over San Francisco will continue to be too interesting for very long, but there are enough intriguing storylines set up here that I’m curious to see more. And that’s the best thing a soap like this can do. (Again, though, I’ve seen two episodes; I don’t know how excited I’d feel about the show based on just the pilot.)
It helps that the cast, as mentioned, is very, very winning, even if Chloe and her friends and the guys that want to date Chloe all seem like they’re at least a decade apart in age. (This is a curious thing that happens on ABC Family, where the teenagers often seem to range in age from 15 to 44. See also: Pretty Little Liars.) Samuels is a real find for the center of this show. She’s got a handle both on the quirky Gilmore Girls dialogue and the biting, Buffy-esque quips she tosses out at bad guys as she beats them down. She’s not perfect, but it’s clear she’ll grow into the role with aplomb, especially once the writers figure out what she can and can’t do. As Amy and Paul, Phipps (who looks distractingly like Alison Brie’s teenage sister) and Lee are very good in the “supportive best friend” roles, and the show doesn’t dilly-dally around on letting the two in on Chloe’s secret. Pietz is good as well, even if she often seems to be in another show entirely. Only the various bland love interests don’t really work, and they’re on screen little enough that you can pretend they’re not even on the show.
And all of this brings us back to Teen Wolf. This show and that show have virtually identical pilot storylines (the final twist from Teen Wolf even pops up here in slightly different form), but this show has a propulsive energy to it the earlier show either didn’t have or didn’t want to have. It also has a cast of young actors who are fun and engaging, and it has a sense that it will at least introduce conflicts for Chloe to figure out how to overcome—like that man who pushes her off a tower—rather than just drag the exposition out until it feels like nothing is happening and this should just be a movie already. I’ll freely admit I’m not the target audience for The Nine Lives Of Chloe King, but for what this is, it’s a pretty fun show, and I think people who dig this sort of thing will find a lot to like in it. It’s not so good that it will drag in those who normally don’t watch this kind of show (like Vampire Diaries does), but for that show’s hardest of hardcore fans, it should make a solid summer substitute.