Warning: There are technically some spoilers ahead for the first season of Tiny Pretty Things.
Netflix’s new Tiny Pretty Things is a dazzling dance of contradictions — for better or worse. On the better side of things, there’s the paradox that bleeds from the show’s core: the simultaneous beauty and terror of ballet. And Tiny Pretty Things rather poignantly and uncomfortably focuses on the terror to great effect. Ballet breaks bones. One dancer self-sutures her foot with superglue like it’s nothing. Another risks everything to dance on an injured foot. Because ballet demands everything of the body right now, obfuscates the future to the point that these young artist-athlete hybrids seem caught in the present, striving for greatness in a system that reminds them they are ever-replaceable. A system that both rewards conformation and demands distinction.
Then, on the worse side of its contradictions, there are narrative dissonances like the fact that there are several fully realized queer characters (mostly men) and yet we’re eventually expected to sympathize with a character who hurls a gay slur out of his mouth so effortlessly that it seems certain that it’s part of his regular lexicon. The writing often misses the mark because it doesn’t even seem to know what mark it’s trying to hit. It’s sloppy in its depiction of eating disorders; inconsistent in its depiction of abusive power dynamics; surface-level in its grapplings with identity.
Billed as Black Swan meets Pretty Little Liars (but lacking the cogent performances of the former and the camp of the latter), Tiny Pretty Things plunges into the secrets and horrors of the Archer School, an elite ballet boarding school in Chicago that is upended by one of its top students — Cassie Shore — plunging over the side of the school’s roof and landing in a coma. It’s the perfect murder mystery in the sense that Cassie isn’t so much a sacrificial lamb as a sacrificial wolf. She was hated by her fellow students. And so everyone’s got a motive, and everyone’s lying to cover their own asses even though they don’t really know who it is that they’re protecting. Tiny Pretty Things is quite successful at keeping the answers to its central mystery shrouded so that the characters and viewers are all dancing in the dark for much of it.
Our entry point into Archer is Neveah Stroyer, a dancer initially rejected by the school but then swiftly accepted when Cassie’s slot opens up. She’s the new girl, and she’s put through the usual ringer of high school conflict at first, sized up and cut down by the mean girl who swooped in to fill the power vacuum left by Cassie, Bette Whitlaw. But it also quickly becomes clear that Neveah is being used, paraded around as a diversity acceptance to distract from Archer’s roof scandal. That’s only the beginning of the ugly things the school’s director Madame DuBois is willing to commit to maintain Archer’s reputation.
As in actual ballet, the character’s internal underpinnings are often explored externally in dream sequences. Most episodes have more than one, and they touch on the characters’ deepest desires but also the traumas that have shaped them. Tiny Pretty Things doesn’t fully commit to the psychological horror genre, but it’s compelling in these sequences despite the very on-the-nose symbolism.
The ensemble is collectively more mesmerizing when it comes to dancing versus acting, and the script often doesn’t do them any favor, stuffing awkward turns of phrase and clichés in their mouths. Clocking in at well over 50 minutes each, the episodes are overlong and it’s hard not to notice the parts that could be cleaved into something tighter.
But there’s also a lot that does work about the show, which is compulsively watchable particularly because it maintains a strong sense of suspense and foreboding. When the true horrors of DuBois and Archer’s history come to light, the show kicks into high gear. These students do awful things to each other in the name of ambition and rising to the top, but the real threat comes not from the in-fighting but from the people in power. After all, that cutthroat mentality is stoked by the adults. The mere notion of “patrons of the arts” takes on a whole new horrific meaning over the course of the show. Abusive men want to control these young people, want access to their bodies. Throughout the show, the dancers’ bodies are the site of their art and excellence but also sites of violence. The show’s real horrors aren’t seen in those violent dream sequences but rather in the real world.
Bette Whitlaw does bad things, but she’s rather explicitly encouraged to do them by her mother, who isn’t a provider of love and support so much as a provider of percocet and impossible pressure. Bette is constantly reminded of the excellence of her sister, the darling Archer alum Delia. June Park — a student who seems to be cursed to be a dancer who is technically good but not good enough — similarly behaves at her worst when she feels the pressure of pleasing her actual mother or the mother that presides over them all: Madame DuBois. So many of these students seem to believe that their lives have been written for them, set in stone, and they struggle to break free of those expectations. The Whitlaw family dynamics make for some of the best written but also most disturbing parts of the show. Bette will never be Delia. Bette will do anything to be Delia. But Delia’s also on her way out. No one stays the darling for long in ballet.
Tiny Pretty Things reveals over and over that abuse of power runs rampant in ballet and boarding schools in general. But it’s difficult to reconcile the show’s commentary on the rampant problem of teachers and adults having sex and relationships with minors with its simultaneous romanticizing of such situations. In one of its more poignant moments, a gay ballet master explains that he can’t show favoritism or even any semblance of friendliness to any students — especially young boys — because he already faces the homophobia of others expecting him to be a creep. But the show hardly brings that level of nuance to its portrayal of the adults who do cross lines with the students.
The relationship between DuBois and one of the students, in particular, falters. It’s one of those instances where I’m not convinced the writers know what mark they’re trying to hit, so it easily misses. DeBois was shaped by the violent system she upholds, and she’s admittedly a compelling villain in her casual cruelty and positioning of her students as bodies to be exploited. She’s only one half of the two-headed monster that breathes fire in Archer. There’s also Ramon Costa, resident manipulative choreographer in the vein of Vincent Cassle’s Thomas in Black Swan. Tiny Pretty Things plays with tropes of the ballet drama subgenre when it comes to some of its stocktypes. This rendering of Ramon as the “tortured male genius” — as he would no doubt call himself — as erratic, manipulative, and overly sensitive to criticism is sharp and effective, an efficient exposé that a controlling choreographer isn’t just a headache but a full-on physical and mental threat.
Speaking of ballet tropes though, Tiny Pretty Things is less effective in its attempts to do the whole Poor Girl With Tragic Backstory Arrives at Rigid Academy To Shake Things Up schtick — precisely because it does feel more like a schtick and less like a meaningful narrative for Neveah, who often feels like a flattened character even though the whole point of her is that she’s supposed to be more complicated than the narrative DuBois foists upon her. But does the show ever truly afford her that complexity and autonomy? I don’t think so, even when there are compelling bits to latch onto in her narrative, like the divergent ways she and her brother have responded to grief and trauma.
Tiny Pretty Things often stumbles through its attempts to comment on race and identity against the backdrop of ballet. Sure, there’s a gutting realness to the fact that Nabil Limyadi’s classmates think he’s a psycho merely because he has an accent and doesn’t smile a lot. But when the show tries to mine conflict from the fact that Caleb Wick wrongfully hates Nabil because he associates Nabil’s Muslim faith with the death of his American soldier father, the results are, unsurprisingly, putrid. The show similarly seems disinterested in really engaging with the racism DuBois displays toward Neveah and her family. It’s like the show is saying, yes, these institutions have a history of racism, but we’re not really going to touch that too much.
And then there’s this frustrating contradiction: In one storyline, the cops are the bad guys, but at the center of the narrative is a “good” cop who perhaps we’re meant to be tricked into thinking is a complicated hero and not a glorified villain because in this version of this oft-told tale of mythical hero cops, she’s a lesbian. Tiny Pretty Things gives Isabel Cruz a tragic backstory as motive: Her wife killed herself, and now Cruz won’t stop at anything to solve the mystery of attempted murder on Cassie because she feels called by the whistles of justice and salvation. A cop with a dead wife searching for redemption and justice? Yeah, I’ve seen that one before. And I hate when queerness is used as a weak attempt to disguise bad tropes as something different and original.
Cruz over and over again uses excessive force, manipulates the teens into getting answers, makes bad assumptions about motive. She shows up at the school constantly, seeming every bit like yet another dangerous adult in these teens’ lives even though the show doesn’t treat her as such. I think the dead wife is supposed to make us think she’s doing the wrong things for the right reasons. This is made even more frustrating by the fact that the book upon which the show is based had a main lesbian character who was one of the students but was erased from the story in the show.
Okay, so I’ve seemingly written a lot of words about a show that I find a lot of faults in. But the stuff I do like about the show, I like quite a lot. There’s something very alluring about the mere premise that the students’ lives are the real dark, twisted ballet — not the self-indulgent drivel that Costa cooks up called Ripper, a tone-deaf ballet about Jack the Ripper. In what I saw as a shoutout to the movie Center Stage — a very important entry in the ballet drama canon — the students end up going to the club to blow off some steam, but the similarities to the sequence in the 2000 film end there, because in Tiny Pretty Things’s version, the students end up beating the shit out of a group of homophobic assholes in the alleyway. It’s silly and fun but also a reminder that the skills these dancers have can be both beautiful and violent. That’s when Tiny Pretty Things is at its finest.
I feel like I might both love and hate Tiny Pretty Things, which makes me feel a lot like its characters, who destroy their best friends one minute and then hold them close the next, who take turns loving and hating each other. Those seismic shifts in the characters’ allegiances are as fun as they are frustrating. On the one hand, being a teenager is full of extremes and changes, and all those are heightened here by the competitive area of ballet and the suffocation of boarding school. On the other hand, it sometimes seems like the characters on this show suffer short-term memory loss, behaving in one scene as if they’ve completely forgotten what they did in the one before it. Your enjoyment of the show will probably hinge on your tolerance for those chaotic shifts. The way I see it, that’s what ballet has done to them. Forced them to live so urgently and demandingly in the present that they struggle to see backward or forward. Then again, maybe it’s just lazy writing.