A genre that never seems to grow out of favor is the vampire genre. Over the last decade, the big screen has given us installments of horror like Let Me In and 30 Days of Night, ummm…”unique” takes like Twilight, unsung studies like Byzantium, action pieces like Dracula Untold and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, even a laugh-out-loud riot in What We Do in the Shadows. Yet when things get shrunk down to the small screen, it seems like the formula is a bit more static. Excising The Vampire Diaries and The Originals (series that emphasized the drama of life, love, and bloodsucking) a couple recent end-of-the-world type series have hit the small screen with varying stages of success. These were The Strain and The Passage, both based on novels where the vampirism epidemic threatens to wash over humanity like a wave, bringing society to its knees as these bloodsucking apex predators used their superior physical traits to knock man off his pedestal at the top of the food chain. V-Wars, another book adaptation (from Jonathan Maberry and a host of others), revisits this theme as long-dormant prions, frozen in ice, are freed and threaten to end mankind as we know it.
The series premiere, “Down with the Sickness” doesn’t waste time getting the action started. Within the first ten minutes, the main characters, Luther Swann (Ian Somerhalder, The Vampire Diaries, Lost, Smallville) and Mike Fayne (Adrian Holmes, Arrow, Skyscraper, Continuum), are exposed to the unknown vector responsible for vampirism. Though action is generally paramount in these types of stories, it shouldn’t come at the expense of character development. In fact, we never get a chance to really know Mike, Luther, or others outside of the impending crisis moving to sweep across the city.
But it’s not just the characters that suffer from this; while the overall arc is clear, the narrative itself is sloppy, littered with questionable decisions, both by characters and those behind the camera. These are further hamstrung by some curious editing decisions where certain scenes feel as if they were cut-and-pasted instead of written together as a seamless story. Nothing is outright bad—though the Kaylee Vo (Jacky Lai, Shadowhunters, Beyond) character as a Reveleaks mystery blogger comes oh so close—rather “Down with the Sickness” displays too many instances where, had the script been given a few more passes, some of the episode valleys could have been cleaned up, particularly in the mind-numbingly bad handling of both law enforcement and scientific procedures.
Negatives aside, “Down with the Sickness” shows promise. Watching Mike’s initial transformation into a vampiric thing is absolutely horrifying. With a distended snout and a mouthful of teeth, the tone V-Wars embraces the horror element that really brings The Strain to mind, a mostly positive comparison. From a character standpoint, the biggest misstep in not showing more before the infection is lessened thanks to the brotherly camaraderie displayed between Luther and Mike—hell, Luther helps Mike cover up his brutal murder of a bartender—and if V-Wars is to break past its unoriginal plot, these character relationships will go a long way in doing so. Even Luther’s son, Dez (Kyle Breitkopf, Wonder, The Silence), while not given much time, adds another stressor for Luther as he works to find a cure for these unprecedented mutations.
Capping it off, a final scene that, while predictable, exhibits aspects of that previously mentioned horror as well as the personal nature of how this infection could affect anyone was the perfect way to end things, playing on our ability to keep Netflix rolling right into the second episode.
Premieres are notoriously tricky, often used to work out the kinks of a show’s direction while tasked with introducing audiences to its characters and providing varying levels of world-building. V-Wars is no different; though failing to establish character depth and derivative plot notwithstanding, it’s a decent enough start. Somerhalder and Holmes share a solid kinship; their natural charisma providing a draw towards wanting to find out more about their relationship. Add to this some surprisingly gruesome (and creepy) vampire effects as well creates a host of questions effective enough that I want to see more. In that respect, “Down with the Sickness” was a satisfactory first installment that opens the door just enough that I’m hopeful things get even better from here.