The previews for Lifetime’s heavily promoted Witches of East End, which premieres tonight, emphasize the mystery and spookiness, but conceal one of this new series’ biggest selling points: It’s a big, juicy hoot.
Loosely based on a novel by Melissa de la Cruz, Witches stars Emmy winner Julia Ormond (Temple Grandin) as Joanna Beauchamp, an art teacher who lives quietly in the titular seaside village with her young adult daughters, bohemian bartender Freya (Jenna Dewan-Tatum, American Horror Story), and shy, down-to-Earth librarian Ingrid (Rachel Boston, In Plain Sight).
The story opens on the night of a party celebrating Freya’s engagement to local rich hunk Dash Gardiner (Eric Winter, GCB), who is both devoted and noble (he works for Doctors Without Borders). Freya is happy but a little distracted at the soiree, chiefly because she’s been having erotically charged dreams involving a dark, seductive stranger (Daniel DiTomasso). You don’t need a crystal ball to know this rates a very big “uh-oh.”
The real drama, however, is going on outside the gates to the Gardiner mansion, where a menacing doppelganger of Joanna violently attacks two of her neighbors. Joanna knows nothing of the incident until the next day when, without warning, her long-estranged sister, Wendy (Madchen Amick), shows up on her front porch to warn her that she has received visions of a terrible danger surrounding Joanna and the girls. Finally convinced, Joanna reluctantly realizes she has to tell Freya and Ingrid the truth: They are witches who have lived and died many times over the centuries. Unfortunately, that revelation may come too late to save one of the Beauchamp girls.
Witches of East End navigates its way deftly through these treacherous soapy waters very impressively during tonight’s first hour, thanks in no small part to a very well-cast ensemble. Ormond is charming yet suggests Joanna’s hidden strengths, and Amick very obviously relishes this chance to play the kooky but concerned aunt. As the younger generation, Dewan-Tatum and Boston do such a good job of making their characters grounded and specific that it becomes easier for us to ignore the fact that Freya and Ingrid are a little too transparently designed to be foils for each other. In fact, strictly on the basis of tonight’s pilot episode, I’m ready to declare Boston the show’s MVP. She has a lovely, accessible girl-next-door quality that keeps pulling us back in when the plot starts tilting toward the wildly improbable.
Witches of East End may not be high art, but it’s terrific entertainment, especially for this time of year. The Beauchamps probably are going to need a heap of magic to draw an audience on one of the most hotly competitive nights in primetime television, but I’m hoping Witches of East End will be around for a spell.