Vampire Academy Premiere Review – Episodes 1-4

Vampire Academy debuts with four episodes on Peacock on Sept. 15, with new episodes weekly.

Vampire Academy, the faithful 2014 adaptation of Richelle Mead’s YA supernatural romance of the same name, was a massive critical and commercial flop. The Vampire Diaries veterans Julie Plec and Marguerite Macintyre have avoided some of that film’s pitfalls by taking more liberties with the source material in their Peacock show, but they’ve inserted a whole new set of problems by trying to cobble together too many big ideas.

The first four episodes of Vampire Academy seem to desperately want to be Bridgerton, but with vampires. While Mead’s novel and the original film focus mostly on high school drama at St. Vladimir’s Academy, the Peacock show has revised the setting to age up its central characters and leave more room for adults and courtly drama. Vampire Academy could be great if it focused mostly on its beautiful people wearing gorgeous clothes at fancy parties where they smolder and scheme, but the show also clumsily tries to bring in elements of The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale by focusing on class conflict and sexual servitude.

Each episode begins with a bit of unnecessary voiceover exposition that feels way too similar to the intro of Avatar: The Last Airbender, explaining that vampires called Moroi have left the human world behind to live in their own dominion and hide from the bloodthirsty vampires known as Strigoi. They’re governed by ancient traditions that give royal status to some bloodlines who can make their eyes glow a different color through unimpressive digital effects. The Moroi are protected by dhampir, created through a long-term breeding program to make as many versions of Blade as possible. But things are going to change because as the opening notes, “The spark of revolution can come from anywhere, even two unlikely friends.”

Those unlikely friends are the Moroi princess Lissa Dragomir (Daniela Nieves) and her guardian-in-training Rose Hathaway (Sisi Stringer). The two dreamed of getting away from vampire politics after graduation until Lissa’s whole family was killed in a car crash, leaving her the heir to the Dragomir seat on the vampiric council and possibly the throne as the 200-year-old Queen Charlotte knockoff ruler of the Moroi plans to step down.

Vampire Academy’s four-episode premiere is strongest when it’s focused on the naive Lissa getting a crash course in intrigue from her godfather Victor Dashkov (Angel’s J. August Richards) and his relentlessly catty and status-obsessed daughter Mia Karp (Mia McKenna-Bruce). But it’s clumsy in its execution on why it’s so important that Lissa get up to speed.

Victor is a reformer who wants more rights for non-royal Moroi like his husband and children, who are left out of high-status gatherings. Meanwhile, increasingly brazen attacks from Strigoi have thinned the numbers of guardians, putting more pressure on the Moroi breeding programs while also leading some Moroi to push for sending teenage dhampir to fight for them.

The show is ostensibly about questioning the status quo but it also goes out of its way to make it seem like it’s not really that bad.

The show alternates between taking the issues of class and race it’s trying to raise seriously and playing them for laughs. After a massacre at one of the other 12 Moroi provinces, The Queen (Pik-Sen Lim) is advised to emphasize the relationship between Moroi and dhampir in a speech. “You mean tell them to fuck more,” the queen responds cheekily.

Later that same episode, Rose’s hot shot guardian mother, Janine Hathaway (Lorna Brown), implores her daughter to take her training seriously, noting that female dhampir who can’t cut it as bodyguards are relegated to either brood mares or blood whores, prostitutes who let Moroi feed on them during sex. Rose’s sexy guardian love interest Dimitri Belikov (Kieron Moore) tells Rose that his sister was married to a Moroi but since his death has been forced back into a breeding compound. It’s heavy material for a show that feels at its most comfortable focusing on smaller-scale dramas like the growing love triangle between Rose, Dimitri, and Rose’s friend with benefits and trainee rival Mason Ashford (Andrew Liner).

And then there’s the feeders, humans who let vampires drink from them. They’re portrayed as junkies in the book, addicted to the pleasure that comes from being bitten by a vampire, and Twilight obsessives in the 2014 film. Here they’re something like the friendly servants found in Downton Abbey, eager to listen to and advise the Moroi who are literally draining their life. The show is ostensibly about questioning the status quo but it also goes out of its way to make it seem like it’s not really that bad, leading to some muddled messaging.

Even if you can look past the questionable politics, Vampire Academy has a host of other flaws. The effects look awful, most notably in the psi hounds, creatures designed to defend the Moroi that look like vaguely dog-shaped white smudges with glowing red eyes. It’s also overused, with golden lines coming out of a character’s mouth to indicate that she is mesmerizing someone else, a classic vampire ability usually just depicted through the power of acting.

The scattered storylines mean that stronger supporting characters like Mia can disappear for an entire episode.

The dialogue is also amazingly cheesy. “There’s a darkness inside me. It sometimes makes me act out in ways that might scare you,” Victor’s eccentric older daughter, Sonya Karp (Jonetta Kaiser), tells her guardian suitor. “What if I’m not easily scared?” he responds. “My job is to fight to the death. I know darkness. Right now, all I see is light.” Cue the smooching. The show expands the focus of Mead’s prose from Rose and Lissa to build a broader ensemble, but many of the plots feel far too tangential and the scattered storylines mean that stronger supporting characters like Mia can disappear for an entire episode.

The action scenes are also inconsistent. The guardians’ training with each other is entertaining, particularly a sequence meant to simulate a Striga attack where the veterans “bite” their trainees to release squibs they’re wearing around their necks. But the actual fights against the Striga are underwhelming since the ruthless foes Mead wrote have been significantly powered down to resemble the vampiric hordes of I Am Legend. The premiere hints that there’s more to the Strigoi, but the supernatural mystery hasn’t gotten much development when stacked on top of so many other plots.

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