“I can find the tiny pretty things you love and tear their wings off.”
Ballet in the real world is full of fierce competition and the desire to outshine everyone else in the room. Although it is a beautiful art form that has been crafted and enhanced for centuries, there are undoubtedly dark undertones behind the scenes. This ambitious but sinister sentiment manifests itself in a new Netflix Original series, Tiny Pretty Things, created by Michael MacLennan and based upon the book of the same name.
Tiny Pretty Things follows Neveah, a young teen and aspiring ballerina. At the start of the series, she is newly accepted to the Archer School of Ballet, a prestigious ballet academy located in Chicago. However, Neveah quickly finds out that a spot has only opened up for her following a tragic incident: Cassie Shore, formerly known as the best ballerina in the company, “accidentally” fell from the school’s roof, landing herself in a coma. Most of the plot is centered around this event, following different leads of what exactly happened the night of Cassie’s fall. Cassie’s comatose self narrates a large portion of the series, with varying allusions between the principles of ballet and the actions and motivations of the characters.
Right from the beginning, there is speculation that Cassie was pushed off the roof by someone to get rid of her as competition. This competitive spirit runs deep, almost like a poison, throughout all of the dancers at the academy, men and women alike. Everyone is scrambling for a spot at the top, and they’ll do anything to obtain it. The central themes of competition, greed, betrayal, and sabotage all culminate in a series that is very much like a cross between Pretty Little Liars and Black Swan. Watching this show will make you feel like a high school teen again, with all of the drama and backstabbing that goes on within the ballet cliques. The series radiates “YA novel” vibes through and through.
Much like in the original book, the series primarily follows three female dancers: Neveah, Bette, and June. Neveah Stroyer is the new girl, and also the only Black ballerina at the academy. Upon arrival, she is immediately bullied and scrutinized as an outsider, and doesn’t easily fit in with the other dancers. It doesn’t help that she quickly steps up as one of the best ballerinas there, which makes the other dancers jealous. Neveah also doesn’t shy away from making waves at the academy, from rebelling against an abusive choreographer to taking down a sex trafficking conspiracy. It gets pretty crazy, believe me.
Bette Whitlaw, following Cassie’s unexpected departure from the academy, now reigns as queen bee at the Archer School. She comes from a wealthy family with lots of strings to pull within the academy; her cold and emotionally distant mother is on the Archer’s executive committee, and her older sister, Delia, is an Archer graduate and already a rising star in the ballet world. Obviously, Bette has a lot of expectations to live up to. The pressure causes her to resort to all sorts of methods of sabotage, sometimes even to herself. She flip-flops between both antagonist and victim, as she suffers from a serious foot injury and the painkiller addiction that follows.
June is one of the nicer girls at the Archer, but that doesn’t stop her from conspiring to get what she wants. Tired of living in the shadows and wanting to break away from being typecast as the second-in-line understudy, June arguably trains harder than anyone to secure a leading solo role, which also equals approval from her strict mother. June may be a cute, innocent girl with a charming British accent, but she is hiding her own dark secrets as well.
These three girls, locked in competition and sharing the desperate desire to rise to the top, are also accompanied by several other unique characters. Shane McRae is an openly gay dancer who serves as the main comic relief in the series, as he navigates both the intense ballet world and his relationships. Oren Lennox is Bette’s boyfriend and Shane’s roommate; while he may be one of the best male dancers there, he is also juggling an eating disorder and a secret, scandalous romantic affair.
Nabil Limyadi is a Muslim exchange student from France, and also Cassie’s boyfriend (before she was in a coma). He is quiet, mysterious, and a top notch ballet dancer. Not only is he constantly accused of pushing Cassie off the roof, he also has problems with his roommate, Caleb, who is severely Islamophobic and unkind toward him.
Higher up in the ranks, there is Ramon Costa, a world-renowned choreographer who has been put in charge of choreographing a new ballet for the Archer students. He is rude, mean, verbally abusive, and also a predator. Point is, he sucks. Leading next to him is Monique DuBois, a middle aged woman who leads as the director of the Archer School. She is strict, fierce, and determined to keep the academy under her control.
As you can imagine, every character has a lot going on. As you watch, it feels like every episode adds yet another crisis to the lives of the characters. Going in, I assumed that the central event that would push the plot forward was Cassie’s fall and coma; this incident seems like plenty enough to fuel a drama. However, as the series continues, more and more secrets and conspiracies are revealed, showing that a possible murder attempt isn’t the only terrible thing happening at the Archer School. From students and teachers sleeping together to the aforementioned sex trafficking, this academy’s got the whole shebang when it comes to hidden crimes and other atrocities.
While the multitude of criminal activity may be a productive way to keep each episode new and exciting, overall it’s too much in terms of having a cohesive plot. There’s so much bad stuff going on, it’s easy to lose sight of one crime and forget about it until it comes back to bite someone several episodes later. With one hour allotted for each episode, the writers must have had a tough time trying to think of ways to fill up all that space. Frankly, the plot is too crazy and overwhelming to be considered well-done. It’s also frustrating to watch the characters backstab each other, then stand in solidarity together in the next episode, and then immediately go back to sabotaging each other again. Are they friends? Enemies? Some weird in-between? It’s really unclear throughout the series, and as a result lacks development.
Despite these shortcomings, one element of the series that deserves praise is the actual dancing itself. Netflix earned a pat on the back for casting real, trained ballet dancers to portray the characters in the show, and good for them for being able to act pretty well, too. As a former dancer myself, I loved the choreography and the way the actors were able to crisply execute every scene that included dancing, from classical ballet to contemporary to hip-hop. If you’re a fan of dance, I definitely recommend this show… as long as you can get over the constant drama and teenage angst. This level of high school histrionics is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea.
There’s a lot of dramatic highs and lows in this show, which at times can make it feel a little over-the-top and ridiculous. I came in expecting the show to be focused mainly on dance, but instead I got an earful of teens fighting, so I have to dock a few points for that. If you loved Pretty Little Liars then you’ll probably love this show too, but if you’re not a fan of that genre of drama, then you’d better keep scrolling through your watchlist. I would only rewatch the dance scenes for their great choreography.