Original Airdate: May 1st, 1996 on FOX
With a track record of shows like The Love Boat, Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, 7th Heaven and Charmed, Aaron Spelling is famous for producing television that strikes it rich with audiences and goes nowhere with critics, but his TV adaptation of the hit role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade flopped. What went wrong?
- Julian Luna. The protagonist of this show is ostensibly boring old human Frank Kohanek (C. Thomas Howell, The Outsiders) but the real star is Julian (Mark Frankel,) the vampire prince of San Francisco. It would be easy to paint the leader of an underground society of vampires as violent and mercurial, but Julian tries to take the high road, believing that the best way to keep the existence of vampires secret and thereby maintain “the masquerade” is to defuse conflicts and keep things peaceful where possible. This is another entry in a long line of shows about vampires, but at its best it feels more like a noirish political thriller than a supernatural horror/fantasy series.
- Soap operatics. Of course, Aaron Spelling is involved, so it’s still a very sudsy soap opera. Luna leads a squabbling group of five vampire clans, each with their own “primogen” or representative with a private personality and agenda, which leads to typical sparks and tensions. Here, Lillie Langtry (Stacy Haiduk, Superboy) is the sultry primogen of the Toreador clan, and she’s conspiring to kill Caitlin Byrne (Kelly Rutherford, Gossip Girl), her rival for Julian’s affections. Elsewhere, Frank is a police detective determined to protect the city from a vampire menace only he knows about, and his partner Sonny (Erik King, Dexter) is secretly a vampire equally determined to thwart Frank. Any TV show with vampires had better have a flair for the dramatic, and as a soap opera, it’s even more satisfying than The Vampire Diaries.
- Vampire-on-vampire combat. While any given episode of this show features power struggles and smoldering human/vampire romance, here all that tension boils over into actual physical combat. Generally the more genres a show is able to touch on the more successful it is, because that means it can please multiple audiences seeking a variety of pleasures. With combat sequences between Julian and two rogue vampires who seek to kill a baby in a sacrificial ritual to become more powerful, Kindred adds action/adventure to its already sizable roster of enticements. It’s even more thrilling because Julian personally steps into the fight out of an abundance of leadership and nobility. The stakes are high not just for him but for all of San Francisco’s vampires: if Goth (Skipp Sudduth, Third Watch) and Camilla (Patricia Charbonneau, Desert Hearts) complete the ritual, it will shatter the Masquerade and completely upend the vampire power structure.
- Stilted dialogue. This show has a lot of ideas and robust worldbuilding, which makes sense, seeing as how an entire company of writers and game designers had been generating Vampire stories for years. Suffice it to say that this creative energy didn’t make it to the script. One scene opens with Julian and Caitlin making goo eyes at each other. “I’m afraid there’s no dessert,” she says. “It depends what you call dessert,” he replies, going in for a kiss. Their dessert will be SEX! Get it!? Does anyone actually talk like this? Ruth Doyle (Maureen Flannigan, Out Of This World) is the hapless teen mom whose baby gets stolen for the blood ritual. At one point we see her forlornly wandering through the park, calling out to the empty air, I guess in the hope that the baby will come crawling amiably out of the bushes, or that whatever perverted murderer who stole her baby will hear her sad cries and be like, “Oh, when I went to steal this baby, I didn’t think that anyone would actually be upset about it!” Anyway, Ruth says, “Please! I want my baby back. Her name’s Jessie. She’s a good baby.” Surprisingly, no one responds. Later, Caitlin enters the lair of the evil vampires who stole Jessie, where she encounters Camilla. Caitlin decides it’s the perfect time to open up to someone about her regrets over giving a baby up for adoption. An interesting, thematically appropriate snippet about the character’s background, revealed at a completely nonsensical moment in the story. In some ways it’s more painful to watch a show like this attempt to do something laudable and fail spectacularly than to watch shows where nothing goes right and no one involved gives a fuck.
- C. Thomas Howell and Maureen Flannigan. You know who definitely doesn’t give a fuck, though? These two. Howell spits out all his lines like he has somewhere better to be (he probably does) and maintains the same facial expression whether he’s watching a man get burned alive, watching his lover throw herself over a bridge or consoling a grieving mom. Yes, he gets to share several scenes with tonight’s other least valuable player, Maureen Flannigan. As mentioned, she was the star of Out of This World, which sounds like exactly the sort of dreck that’d fit in well with the shows discussed on this blog, but apparently her star turn did not prepare her well for convincingly playing a mother who watched a freakish looking monster snatch her baby out of a public park. She never seems genuinely terrified, and even her desperation rings hollow. That baby’s probably going to get snatched at least three more times before coming of age.
Final Judgment: 6/10. It’s now all too clear why this flopped—viewers that might have been interested in the knotty storytelling and the well-developed mythos would be put off by the terrible scripts and performances, and viewers looking for another bubblegum soap opera in the vein of Melrose would quickly change the channel after encountering a boatload of Vampire-specific terminology and five separate factions engaged in internecine squabbles. TV viewers got off easy, though—in the role-playing game, there are thirteen clans.
NEXT TIME: I return to my long lost and forgotten coverage of anime by looking at Michiko & Hatchin!