For many tabletop role players, they can point to the granddaddy of them all Dungeons and Dragons as the gateway to the world of RPGs. It’s what got them into the hobby, and they can recount early campaigns and characters with fondness and nostalgia. In my own case and probably others it was Vampire: The Masquerade, a game that revolutionized the hobby in the 1990’s. What does any of this have to do with a review of a TV series? Well that TV series, Kindred: The Embraced, was highly influenced and used Vampire: The Masquerade as source material.
Kindred: The Embraced came out on network television in 1996 at the height of the popularity of Vampire: The Masquerade. It was co-produced by Aaron Spelling who had previously produced two successful series Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place. The other co-producer was Mark Rein Hagen who created Vampire: The Masquerade and is on the development team for the forthcoming 5th edition which you can pre-order here (shameless plug). The show would only last 8 episodes and any hope of a quick revival by being picked up by another cable network (I had heard rumors that the Sci-Fi channel was looking into picking it up) were dashed by the untimely death of one the stars of the show, Mark Frankel.
The show follows two principle characters; Julian Luna played by the late Mark Frankel and Police Detective Frank Kohanek played by C Thomas Howell. The human Kohanek’s pursuit of suspected criminal corruption of Luna uncovers that there is a hidden vampire society in San Francisco and that Luna is not only a vampire himself but also in charge of that society. The episodes bring up the struggles of maintaining the Masquerade by which the vampires hide from human notice to avoid being hunted; struggling with their vampiric nature and need to maintain their weakening humanity; and the power struggles between the vampire clans for power and dominance.
The influence of Vampire: The Masquerade is apparent right from the start as even the opening credits shows artwork from the earlier editions of the game. The vampires are divided into vampire clans that are named Toreador, Gangrel, Ventrue, Brujah, and Nosferatu. A sixth clan is introduced later and is revealed to be an assassin specific clan called Assamites. The pilot involves a blood hunt in which the Prince declares that a vampire is fair game to be killed and destroyed by any in the city. The vampire that made another vampire is referred to as sire and the process of becoming a vampire is referred to as an embrace. These are all concepts and terms straight out of Vampire: The Masquerade.
Then there are the nods to the game that someone familiar with Vampire: The Masquerade would notice but a casual observer wouldn’t. A common setting used in the show is a club owned by the Toreador Primogen named Haven. This is a reference to the merit and location by which players of Vampire would have their characters consider their ‘safe house or home. One episode’s antagonist is a recently embraced vampire who was mentally troubled. He made bloody scrawls near his victims that said, “Blood Brothers”. Those familiar made a connection to the bloodline of the Sabbat of the same name. I also viewed this antagonist as a nod to the Malkavian clan whose vampiric curse is that of madness.
The world of Kindred: The Embraced does depart from the game in some cases. If vampires have fed recently and are full enough they are able to be exposed to sunlight without catching fire. They do not use ghouls and instead just place vampires in needed positions to pose as human. The vampiric power of domination does not require eye contact. Many of the vampire powers seem to be universal to all the clans. Every clan shape shifts into an animal at some point during the series and multiple clans demonstrate mental domination over humans. A case could also be made that the Gangrel as portrayed in the show act more like Brujuh and the Brujuh don’t act like Brujuh at all and seem more like they walked out of a Godfather movie.
Overall, Kindred is very faithful to its source material and this is a major reason I believe Kindred has the cult following it has today. Having predated Twilight and True Blood it’s easy to believe it was before it’s time and like Firefly wasn’t given a chance to develop and grow a following. In re-watching these episodes, the best I can say is this is a guilty pleasure like watching Evil Dead.
There is quite a bit of bad acting throughout the episodes. Fortunately, most of the time this is coming from supporting roles; those that are only appearing in a single episode. There is the doctor in the pilot episode who is just awful and puts in a performance only worthy of my high school productions. A later episode has a teenage mother whose baby is kidnapped, and she just fails to be convincing in providing believable emotions over the matter.
Unfortunately, the over acting also comes from series regulars Brian Thompson, who plays Eddie Fiori the Primogen of the Brujah, and C. Thomas Howell. With Howell I’m inclined to think that he is hamming it up just because of what he has to work with because the character of Kohanek is weak. It’s a stereotypical cop character with stereotypical cop lines. In an early episode he seems to serve the purpose of providing exposition for the audience but little else. The character is useless as the show develops as much of his meaningful role is taken over by another more interesting character, Kaitlin.
Nothing can overcome the bad and cliched writing that is present. Lily, Luna, and Sonny among others put in decent to great performances for the most part but all too often there is nothing they can do to overcome bad dialogue. Some of it just seems like it was lifted from a bad cop or gangster drama. It’s possible part of the issue was that there was so much of the lore and setting that needed to be established that it took a few episode scripts for the writers to figure out how to make the dialogue more natural.
While the special effects largely didn’t age well I would advise looking past it. The quality of the effects is on par with one of the show’s contemporaries: The X-Files. They might look a bit cheesy sometimes, but television series didn’t often get big budgets to have polished effects. When the acting and the story are present it’s easier to overlook. Unfortunately, it just contributes to making the earlier episodes painful to watch.
The show does slowly get better with each episode. One of the things they got right was the political dynamics between the vampire clans. In today’s polarized society it can be too easy to see things in simple black and white terms, but Kindred presents a much more complex and layered arena. We see characters not just motivated by lust for power, some are motivated by friendships, personal jealousy, revenge, or a desire for a greater purpose. The seeds were set for a compelling vampire political drama that would have made the Sopranos or Game of Thrones proud.
If Kindred was before it’s time it wasn’t because it was about the supernatural or vampires. Both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the X-Files were out at the same time and had good long runs. The character development and political drama that could be strung over several episodes was new. Game of Thrones was just published, and Sopranos was three years away. That it involved vampires merely makes it unique. Television series were in the midst of transition, going from the self-contained episode format to the long running story arc where if you miss an episode you are suddenly lost with what is going on. If Kindred had been able to have a few more seasons, then it might be better remembered by a larger audience if it had delivered on those potential stories.
After Kindred was cancelled, Mark Frankel said in an interview that he felt that Kindred had so much potential and it was not given enough of a chance. This sentiment has been echoed over the years that it was cancelled too soon and not allowed to mature. Based on the flaws I mentioned, that potential can’t really be seen until the last few episodes. Kindred wasn’t Firefly presenting a polished quality first season product sabotaged by a network releasing episodes out of order.
While there is no guarantee of being renewed for a second season, most TV show productions today know they must hit it out of the park to stand a chance as demonstrated by Stranger Things and House of Cards. Previously though a production could take a season or two to grow; as actors, writers and directors began to understand the characters and the kinds of stories they wanted to pursue. It wasn’t unusual for a show to not hit its stride till season three. Even an iconic show like Star Trek: The Next Generation had some horrible and offensive episodes in its first season.
Therefore, it’s reasonable to believe that Kindred was not afforded this grace period to develop and smooth out the rough spots of the production. Aaron Spelling was an experienced producer in the industry and probably ran under the mistaken belief that as long as they improved with each episode that they could overcome the initial flaws of the early episodes.
When so often movies or TV shows based on video games or tabletop RPGs are poor representations of their source, Kindred: The Embraced does its inspiration proud. While many episodes are painful there are several redeeming moments and scenes that prove it had potential and worth the voices who seek a new attempt at this show. Personally, I am tired of seeing twinkling vampires, bad vampire romances, and think it’s about time that the world is reminded that Vampire are beasts, lest beasts they become.