AMC has decided to go all-in on Anne Rice's supernatural legacy, which, in a way, is heartening. In a world of oft-uninspired genre storytelling, Rice's French Quarter-dwelling, lusty, amoral, supernatural characters have always felt uniquely hers. Last year's adaptation of Interview with the Vampire was a thrilling visit to her world, as sexy and dangerous and morally ambiguous a show as the Vampire Chronicles deserved. Now, with Mayfair Witches, the network attempts to build on that success to create what it's calling "Anne Rice's Immortal Universe.” Based on Rice's Lives of the Mayfair Witches trilogy of novels, this new series would ideally help a well-reviewed show like Interview become part of a full-fledged TV franchise. Of course, that puts pressure on it to deliver something equally thrilling, and unfortunately, based on the five episodes that screened for critics, it falls short.
There’s certainly potential in the source material. Rice’s incredibly soapy novels — The Witching Hour, Lasher, and Taltos — follow the Mayfairs, a line of witches who stretch back to 17th-century Scotland and who have passed down the family's collected wealth through a line of female designees. The Mayfair women, as the title suggests, possess supernatural powers, which they may or may not be able to control. Mayfair Witches centers on Dr. Rowen Fielding (Alexandra Daddario), who was adopted shortly after birth and is only just now learning that her biological mother was a Mayfair designee. Along with the Mayfair fortune and a New Orleans mansion, Rowen has inherited certain supernatural abilities, which in her case manifest as the power to, if she gets upset enough, see inside a person's vascular system and tear open an artery. The first time this happens, it's curious. By the third or fourth time it becomes incredibly, if unintentionally, funny.
As Rowen finds herself drawn ever further into the macabre world of the Mayfair family, she begins to unpack her past. The true identity of her biological mother and the circumstances by which they were separated at Rowen's birth point to secrecy and treachery within the family. Sinister figures abound, even as they introduce themselves to Rowen in the most genteel manner.
Series creators Esta Spalding (On Becoming a God in Central Florida) and Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex) struggle to bring this sprawling story into focus. It’s frequently unclear what kind of show we’re even watching: If it's an ensemble soap about a family of scheming witches, then we're not spending nearly enough time with the Mayfair family. If it's a show about a normal young woman who comes into a heretofore unknown legacy of powers and fortune, then Rowen's vague characterization in the first episode is a problem. If we’re meant to see a decades-spanning drama about control and sexual obsession — which, by the end of the fifth episode, seems to be the case — then the show has a problem with its enigmatic male lead.
Through the course of these early episodes, we're made aware of Lasher (Jack Huston), an ethereal, probably demonic recurring presence in the lives of the Mayfair women. He's not exactly played like a swoon-worthy romantic, but the way he seems to hold certain Mayfair women in his sexual thrall suggests that the audience is also meant to find him darkly irresistible. The comparisons to Lestat are unavoidable, and like all comparisons that Mayfair Witches invites to Interview with the Vampire, it does the former no favors. Huston isn't the problem. He's a talented actor whose haunting and tragic performance in Boardwalk Empire still stands out. But Lasher is simply too insubstantial a character to provoke strong feelings. He's a ghostly presence but (thus far at least) only blandly terrifying. He's like if the boogeyman were supposed to be sexy, which ends up being a heavier lift than asking the Interview audience to see the sex appeal in a cultured, refined, vaguely despicable vampire.
Like Huston, the rest of the cast puts in good work. Alexandra Daddario had such an encouraging breakthrough performance on The White Lotus that it's frustrating watching her try very hard to sell Rowen's anguish and eventual terror as she discovers the truth about her biological family. But she doesn't seem to have any better idea about why Rowen and Lasher would be drawn to each other than the showrunners do. Rowen fares better paired with Ciprien (Tongayi Chirisa), a field agent for a secret society that has seemingly been keeping the Mayfairs in check for centuries. The pair has real chemistry, and the show feels most alive in their moments together.
Within the Mayfair family, legendary character actress Beth Grant gets to shine as a repressive matriarch, and after Mad Men resurrected his career, it's fun to see Harry Hamlin back in the game as a patriarch with secrets. Annabeth Gish makes a compelling lead character for a moment, but her presence is fleeting. Still, for all the actors’s charisma, these roles are thinly conceived, which makes it hard to get absorbed in a Southern gothic world of witches as landed gentry.
As for the "shared universe" connections between Mayfair Witches and Interview with the Vampire, they're at this point little more than Easter eggs. (In an early episode of Interview, for instance, we learn that the Mayfair mansion is just down the street from the Pointe du Lac house.) The novels never explicitly overlapped either, so any substantive, Avengers-style crossing of the streams would have to be original material. At this point, though, Mayfair Witches would be overwhelmed by such a union. If the Anne Rice television universe is going to prosper, better to try to get the Mayfair house in order first.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: Mayfair Witches, Interview with the Vampire, Alexandra Daddario, Annabeth Gish, Anne Rice, Beth Grant, Harry Hamlin, Jack Huston, Tongayi Chirisa