To (extremely) paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: nothing is certain in storytelling but love, death, and vampires combining the two. In the last 30 years, give or take a “True Blood,” some of TV’s most popular interpretations of one of the world’s eldest mythic creatures have tended to lean toward the teenaged variety, whether plucky and battle-scarred (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) or moody and yearning (“The Vampire Diaries”). Now, Peacock’s “Vampire Academy,” from “Vampire Diaries” co-creator Julie Plec and “The Originals” producer Marguerite MacIntyre, combines all the above into one package that ends up intriguing enough, if also unavoidably cheesy in its attempts to stand out amongst the fray.
With the help of a somber, blunt opening explanation, the series immediately throws us into a centuries-old society of three co-existing vampire species: the magic “Moroi” aristocrats, the half-Moroi, half-human “Dhampir” tasked with protecting them, and the feral “Strogoi,” more zombie than vampire, posing a constant threat outside the fortress walls. As adapted from Richelle Mead’s novels, “Vampire Academy” homes in on an unlikely pair of best friends — Moroi princess Lissa (Daniela Nieves) and Dhampir trainee Rose (Sisi Stringer) — as the focal point of a larger narrative about all the alliances and hostilities between vampire factions beginning to show their cracks.
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Underneath all the fantasy jargon and budget banter, there are some strains of class conflict that give “Vampire Academy” a little something extra. Alongside Rose, a Black woman whose mother (Lorna Brown) is a Guardian legend, all the Dhampir — like Rose’s competition Mason (Andrew Liner) and Meredith (Rhian Blundell) — are coded as decidedly working class in comparison to Lissa’s circle of nobles, including the formidable Queen (Pik Sen Lim), Lissa’s godfather Victor (J. August Richards), and Jesse (Joseph Ollman), the show’s requisite “bad rich boy with daddy issues.” (In case you couldn’t already guess, let there be no doubt that “Gossip Girl” was on “Vampire Academy’s” vision board.)
Despite sharing surprisingly little screen time together considering that Rose and Lissa’s friendship is ostensibly the anchor of the entire show, Nieves and Stringer find enough chemistry to make their utter devotion to each other ring true. They each get their own forbidden love interests: for Rose, the more experienced Guardian, Dimitri (Kieron Moore); for Lissa, the social outcast Christian (Andre Dae Kim). “Vampire Academy” never met an opposites-attract couple it didn’t want to make happen: there’s also noted eccentric Sonya (Jonetta Kaiser) and smitten Dhampir Mikhail (Max Parker), as well as Sonya’s mean girl sister Mia (Mia McKenna-Bruce) and the rougher-around-the-edges Meredith. The pairings become more predictable by the episode, but “Vampire Academy” wastes no time in making clear that any combination of these characters could eventually find their way to each other, as per typical teen drama protocol. Still: Nieves and Stringer have the strongest spark between them, should there ever be a world in which Lissa and Rose’s close connection would become less than platonic.
Plec and MacIntyre — not to mention “Angel” alum Richards — are no stranger to vampire shows, and do their best to differentiate “Vampire Academy” from the rest of their prolific slate by embracing its broader, more formal kind of mythology. And yet, the show feels entirely familiar, from its soft remix of teen show relationships to building vampire grandeur and fearsome monsters under clear budget constraints. All the stylized directing and choppy editing in the world can’t distract from the less than inspiring fight choreography anchoring many of the episode’s go for broke set pieces; the acting is uniformly passable, with an occasionally sharp moment from Stringer, Richards, or Kaiser breaking through. But if you’re generally a fan of teen melodramas, especially those weaving magic and mythos into every fraught interaction, “Vampire Academy” just might do the trick.
“Vampire Academy” premieres Thursday, September 15 on Peacock.
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