Lifetime enters television’s increasingly crowded supernatural arena with “Witches of East End,” a frothy, frisky soap that suggests what an ABC Family show might look like after graduating high school. Fittingly, “Witches” is adapted from a series of novels by Melissa de la Cruz, a popular young-adult fiction writer dabbling in more “adult” material. A pre-existing literary fan base can’t hurt for a guilty pleasure hoping to cast a spell on viewers in a hectic Sunday TV landscape, but just how pleasurable that guilt proves to be is still to be determined after the pilot episode.
Bohemian artist Joanna Beauchamp (Julia Ormond) lives with her twentysomething daughters — chatty bombshell bartender Freya (Jenna Dewan Tatum) and reserved, practical librarian Ingrid (Rachel Boston) — in a sleepy coastal town. While all three have magical powers, Joanna keeps her daughters in the dark about their abilities in an attempt to protect them from an age-old curse: Every 30 years the girls lose their lives for magic-related reasons and the immortal Joanna immediately becomes pregnant again so the endless cycle can begin anew.
Of course, secrets can’t stay secret for long, especially on Lifetime, and a confluence of events — including the arrival of Joanna’s estranged but supportive sister Wendy (Madchen Amick) and an evil Joanna doppleganger bent on revenge — force the Beauchamp ladies to face their destiny. At the same time, Freya’s engagement to local rich kid Dash Gardiner (Eric Winter) is threatened by her erotic dreams involving a mysterious stranger who turns out to be Dash’s long-lost brother Killian (Daniel DiTomasso).
The love triangle has an unexplained but apparent connection to the witchy business, as signaled by the flowers that burst into flames and explode whenever Freya and Killian lock lips.
In keeping with the new, edgier Lifetime (home of “The Client List” and “Devious Maids”), the “Witches” pilot includes mild off-color language and brief nonsexual nudity (Wendy has the power to transform into a cat but loses her clothes whenever she changes back). But no one’s going to get it confused with FX’s gonzo “American Horror Story” (coincidentally also focused on witches this year). Instead, the supernatural series “Witches” most resembles is “Charmed,” with its mix of light horror, heavy romance and sisterly squabbling.
That show often coasted on the charisma of its lead actresses, and it’s too soon to tell if “Witches” can follow suit. The focus on Freya and Ingrid isn’t particularly promising, since veterans Ormond and Amick (who both had memorable guest turns on “Mad Men”) effortlessly upstage their younger colleagues. But it’s possible Dewan Tatum and Boston will grow into the roles as their characters begin to explore their powers.
Given viewers’ seemingly insatiable appetite for anything remotely horror themed, it’s only logical for Lifetime to jump on the trend, and “Witches” provides a natural fit with the network’s brand. Even if the series plays it right down the middle — it’s not exactly good, but not terrible either — that might be all that’s needed to succeed.