TV Review: “Tiny Pretty Things”

“Tiny Pretty Things” screams scandal over substance, rendering this drama about the highly-competitive world of professional ballet disturbing and highly unsatisfying.

Based on the novel by Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra, the new Netflix drama “Tiny Pretty Things” is a trite venture into the competitive world of high school ballerinas at the prestigious Archer School in Chicago. The show’s vibe is akin to what one might imagine would occur if “Whiplash” and “Pretty Little Liars” announced a crossover — if that crossover had an excessive helping of sex and nudity poured in. “Tiny Pretty Things” deals with the individuality-killing, soul-sucking nature of dance, and it’s not without precedent; “Black Swan” is similar in its documentation of the drastic extremes to which a ballerina will break themselves — mind, body, and soul — for a principal role. Where “Tiny Pretty Things” veers off-course is when it dips its toes into the world of trafficking, subterfuge, and abuse, but denies these storylines their full emotional gravity; the show’s substance-lacking depictions of such issues exploits their shock value for viewer engagement, and it feels cheap.  

The tension seeps in when Neveah Stroyer (Kylie Jefferson) of Inglewood joins the Archer School, ignorant of the fact that her invitation was only possible due to the horrific “accident” that put former star pupil Cassie Shore (Anna Maiche) into a coma. Her naive optimism fades quickly upon realizing her arrival is a publicity stunt orchestrated by headmistress Madame DuBois (Lauren Holly) to save face in light of the scandal. DuBois publicly remarks that Neveah’s scholarship “helped her escape a dead-end life in Compton,” while privately disregarding her as a promising Academy invitee. Also part of the unwelcoming committee is Bette Whitlaw (Casimere Jollete), sister of principal dancer Delia Whitlaw and Queen Bee hopeful, who sees an opportunity to seize her spotlight with Ms. Shore indisposed, and June Park (Daniela Norman), an overlooked dancer desperate for a principal role to prove, to her business magnate mother, the feasibility of a professional career in dance. The competitive nature of these girls gunning for the same prize is the source of the cattiness, backstabbing, and betrayal that comprises much of the 10 episodes in the series. 

Plotwise, “Tiny Pretty Things” lacks character development, instead using its cast to enact relationships that lack motivation and logical build-up. Dancers form alliances with seemingly little basis within the first few minutes of an episode, only to shortly betray or display an unfounded dislike of one another. Audiences never get a proper glance into the reasons why the characters’ motivations shift, alternatively remaining saddled with the idea that the insidious pressures of the dance world undermine all relationships — even the ones that the characters themselves seem to value. Additionally, viewers never get a feel for their protagonists’ personalities as characters are written so inconsistently that their dialogue sounds interchangeable. Initially, for example, Neveah displays an independent fierceness and imperviousness to hostility — an obvious foil to Bette — that makes her seem otherworldly at Archer. Despite these scenes, it only takes a few minutes for Neveah to behave as an entirely different character; she returns a few out-of-place, cutting remarks to Bette that sound as if they were written for Bette herself. This makes Neveah seem less like the outsider standing up for herself and more like the character she is supposed to be the most different from. In this manner, “Tiny Pretty Things” flattens the distinct individuality viewers need to witness in their protagonists to find them either likable or relatable. 

Furthermore, the combination of bland characters and storylines that carelessly handle a teacher-student affair, drug addiction, a trafficking ring, and abuse, creates a constant influx of scandal that’s not always enjoyable to watch. However, the show is at its best toward its end, when its “How to Get Away with Murder” -esque investigation takes over, quickening the pace of prior episodes that slowed down due to clunky lines such as “When we see talent, we don’t ask where it comes from,” and “I don’t know a nutcracker from my nightstick, but I know danger when I see it.” And the show is definitely at its most enjoyable when showcasing the abilities of its cast of professional dancers, who express emotion with their bodies in an ethereal, spell-binding fashion.

 If anything, “Tiny Pretty Things” is valuable for giving its cast of artists a greater audience for their dancing and athletic talents. They carry the show as best they can, and they do a decent job of staying “on pointe” — especially when their script is anything but. 

Created by: Michael MacLennan
Starring: Brennan Clost, Barton Cowperthwaite, Bayardo De Murguia, Damon J. Gillespie, Kylie Jefferson, Casimere Jollette, Anna Maiche, Daniela Norman, Michael Hsu Rosen, Tory Trowbridge, Jess Salgueiro, Lauren Holly 
Release Date: Dec. 14, 2020
Grade: C

Image courtesy of Netflix.

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