Netflix’s ‘Tiny Pretty Things’ is not quite en pointe, still compelling

Photo from the Netflix series, "Tiny Pretty Things"
Netflix/Courtesy

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

Based on the soapy young adult novel authored by Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra, Netflix’s latest teenage mystery drama series serves as a dark, dramatic twist on the world of ballet. Yet ironically, unlike the art of dance, the debut season of “Tiny Pretty Things” is devoid of fundamental grace.

The 10-episode series follows aspiring ballerina Neveah Stroyer (Kylie Jefferson), who is beginning her first semester at Archer School of Ballet in Chicago. As she navigates petty cliques and toxic competition, suspicion swirls around the academy following a star dancer’s devastating fall off of a building. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that the tragedy was no accident.

With excessive drama and exaggerations guiding storylines, “Tiny Pretty Things” is certainly an entertaining watch. Its fast pace is both an asset and a setback: The show feels uninspired at times, but it’s rarely passionless. Besides its elegant composition of dance performances, the show isn’t strikingly creative, but its overarching mystery component is enough motivation for a viewer to watch the first season all the way to the end.

Mystery isn’t always at the forefront of the season, though. The show detracts from its primary focus with too many minor characters and plotlines, conveniently pulling in police officer Isabel Cruz (Jess Salgueiro) when the plot begins to lose sight of the investigation. Never quite fitting into the plot, Cruz feels more like a distraction than a full-fledged character.

Luckily, most characters are more well developed and neatly woven into the season than Cruz. Brennan Clost smoothly navigates heartache as the dynamic Shane McRae, and Casimere Jollette manages to juggle unceasing turmoil as the debonair, merciless Bette Whitlaw. Similar to most of their castmates, these actors are in touch with their characters, but it’s clear that inconsistencies in writing lead some performances astray. With poor dialogue that’s more awkward than sly, many character interactions come across as rigid.

Characterization quality isn’t the only spotty component of the season. Dissonant, theatrical narration attempts to tie episodes together thematically, but the show simmers to laziness by incessantly falling back on dance metaphors to relay platitudes. The show also takes more than a few stabs at major societal issues and serious subjects — such as systemic corruption, sexual abuse, drug use and eating disorders — but never clearly makes a significant statement about any of them. By using these issues as vehicles for drama without addressing their weight in reality, the show misses an opportunity to transcend the typical limitations of its category.

“Tiny Pretty Things” aims to strip away the glamour of ballet, revealing darkness beneath a rosy, lustrous aesthetic. As much as characters are driven by their passion for dance, they are equally riddled with insecurity, isolation or fear of failure. This internal darkness lends itself well to the show’s mystery, but with so little relief to such pain, there’s distressing brokenness to “Tiny Pretty Things” that the show struggles to recover from.

Part of this stems from an unnecessary dehumanization of its characters. Competition in the studio drives central conflict, but unrealistic, intemperate cruelty emerges from rivalries. The show crafts lovable characters only to mold them into antagonists, and these exasperating inconsistencies in characterization exist only to briefly carry weak plotlines that soon fall away.

These provisional, poorly-constructed plotlines point to the season’s central issue — a painful lack of dedication. Complicating an already overwhelming and unorganized plot, myriad minor characters and forced relationships distract from key narratives. The show values convenience over sustainability, impatiently choosing to deliver swift entertainment instead of developing thoughtful storylines.

This does, however, make the fast-paced show somewhat irresistible in the short term — each tangled, messy episode is strangely digestible. The finale, though more frustrating than satisfying, manages to tie up loose ends as well as introduce conflicts for a foreseeable second season.

“Tiny Pretty Things” is far from polished, but its effective recycling of character tropes is sufficient to create a captivating first season. While it certainly doesn’t raise the “barre” for teenage dramas, “Tiny Pretty Things” has just enough intrigue that it might move into first position as everyone’s next guilty pleasure.

Contact Taila Lee at [email protected].