2 out of 5
Directed by: Juan Carlos Medina, Alice Troughton, Sarah Walker
Some interesting lore sidelined by sexy vampires.
Yeah, it’s true: your romances and doomed love subject matters are not for me. It’s not that I’m against these things in my books / movies / comics / what have you, but my personality runs toward the ‘isolationist / asexual / aromantic’ type (I assume that’s a type?), and so my tolerance of the type of emotions and (il-)logics that often come bundled with lovey focused stuff isn’t very great, or rather, the stuff of that type that does appeal to me is generally very specific. Those specifics don’t have to be made specifically for my “type” – I’m down with meet cutes and with smooches in a certain context – but there is a context I prefer, nonetheless, and the vast majority of things don’t abide by it.
They don’t need to, of course, and I’d like to think that I’m able to evaluate media from a top-down level instead of viewing it only as it directly appeals to my sensibilities, but I wanted to state all of this stuff up front because I think I may have less tolerance than usual for A Discovery of Witches’ particular breed of “…OMG I’m in love and I don’t care that it’s tearing the world apart la dee da vampire teeth…” But that said, what really gets me about the show is how potentially interesting it is, and how its construction continually kicks the legs out from ‘neath that interestingness by focusing on its romance, which, to me, just isn’t all that gripping.
This “breed” of smooching to which I reference seems to require a particular dumbing down of the senses that extends beyond swept-off-one’s-feet momentum: witch Diana (Teresa Palmer) is a scholar, and fiercely independent… until she becomes a typical, petulant girl in love. Vampire Matthew (Matthew Goode) is a stridently logical, focused scientist of sorts… until he becomes a typically ignorant dude in love. All that makes these two characters interesting on their own terms, and thus even an interesting pair, goes right away once we jump the shark to their ultimate love – the show speeds right past any getting-to-know-yous into “I trust you with my life” protestations – and distracts from the quite intriguing world in which they exist.
Namely: vampires, witches, and demons all exist, and are kinda / sorta keeping the peace with one another, based on a hierarchy in which witches seem to be top of the food chain, hoarding power over the vamps and the lower-class demons. Humans are very much a background to this; ‘Discovery’ has the benefit of being able to skip past all the unnecessary introductions of regular folk to this supernatural world by just focusing on the supernatural: the (seeming) crux of the story is Diana’s inadvertent “discovery” of a text which, for various reasons, can balance or upset the powers amidst these three “classes,” kicking off a struggle for control of it, which is complicated for various reasons. Diana, for example, rather refuses to use her witchly powers, and we’re also not exactly in a setup in which private wars are being waged ‘neath the streets: these three types of beings are living amongst us, doing normal, everyday things… just sometimes with benefits. So the balance / upsetting of powers is also about a change in the status quo of day-to-day living, and not just secret vampire or witch rites or whatnot.
It’s an intriguing muddle of Harry Potter regular / magic mixing and Outlander-y fantasy grounding – two things to which the show’s source material of Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy books have been compared – and then, alas, Twilight bullshit. Matthew has been doing research that compounds with the information in the book Diana has found. This brings them together, kicking off a question of intra-class relationships – vampires and witches hanging out together! – and also, of course, dribbling in the whole danger / lust parallel. Which isn’t unwelcome to start, but, as mentioned, jumps a bit too quickly into whole-hearted declarations, and then suddenly the pair’s intertwining takes over completely, pushing this world-changing book to the background, a mentality that pervades throughout the rest of the show as well, with a swath of too many characters getting introduced and named with reverence, then disappearing. We check in with them here and there, with similar reverence – they’re mainly tasked with picking up the book plot thread – but these characters’ establishment within the overall DNA of the show is poorly done to the extent that keeping track of their allegiances and even their names starts to feel rather pointless. Later, Diana goes through something of another ‘discovery’ of sorts with her past, and it opens up revelations about her personality that, similarly, lack impact because it seems that how the show struck out on its narrative from the very start was, unpurposefully, misdirectional…
…All because we want our vampire love.
When things circle back around to gain momentum on lore towards season’s end, the show again shows its promise. But I’m not sure if there are enough (what I view as) strengths in this first season to encourage me that we won’t be distracted again by less compelling subject matter in the already secured second and third seasons…