The tenuous truce between vampires, demons, and witches is threatened by an ancient secret. And, at the center of it is the forbidden romance between a vampire and witch in Sundance Now’s and SHUDDER’s new series A Discovery of Witches, based on the bestselling novel by Deborah Harkness, the initial entry in her All Souls Trilogy.
A Discovery of Witches may not be reinventing the wheel but, after viewing its eight episode first season, it’s easy to see the appeal of this supernatural fantasy romance. Vampires and witches never really fall out of fashion in the genre. Throw in a dash of Game-of-Thrones-like palace intrigue and sexy, star-crossed lovers, and you’ve got a hit. It’s a formula as old as time.
The story revolves around Dr. Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer), an academic and historian in present-day Oxford who is descended from witches. Bishop has never shown much magical potential until she seemingly accidentally stumbles upon a long-lost ancient manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, which may be the key to unlocking secrets worth killing over.
Deborah Harkness’ world is one where vampires, witches, and demons have lived in shadow among humans for eons. It’s a world Diana Bishop has largely ignored since her parents’ deaths and for which she’s suddenly thrust back into upon meeting sexy, brooding vampire Matthew Clairmont, played by Matthew Goode (Watchmen, The Crown). Clairmont has been searching for the book for centuries.
The show takes full advantage of its European setting as the story jumps around from one beautiful setting to another, from Venice to France. And the sequences in the first episode of Diana Bishop rowing through Oxford are visually thrilling.
But not everything works. Though I haven’t read the book, cramming an entire novel into eight 42-minute episodes means some characters likely had their storylines cut to allow for a greater focus on the central relationship, and it shows. The demon characters seem to have gotten the worst end of that deal as the audience doesn’t get much time to care about demons Agatha, Nathaniel, and Sophie. They don’t have all that much to do in season 1 beyond moving the plot forward. And vampires Marcus and Miriam similarly function merely as sidekicks to Matthew.
Lack of strong characterization also plagues several of the show’s political figures who frequently hold meetings in The Congregation, a kind of mini-UN where vampire, witch, and demon ambassadors negotiate with one another. Here, witch Peter Knox and vampire Gerbert D’Aurillac ambitiously plot and scheme and express distrust and bigotry towards the other groups, but they’re kept too much at a distance from the audience to understand any deeper motivations. So they never come off as much more than generic villains.
But where the show shines is in its two leads. Palmer and Goode sizzle. And though the material at times approaches the line of negative YA tropes, Harkness effectively avoids the more problematic Edward and Bela power dynamics of the Twilight series.
Diana Bishop doesn’t need saving. Sure, she spends the entire season with a target on her back and finds herself in peril repeatedly, but there’s a key moment near the middle of the season where Goode’s Matthew Clairmont arrives to save his damsel in distress only to discover he’s powerless to help her. It’s here Bishop learns she must save herself. And by season’s end, it becomes increasingly clear she may be potentially more powerful than anyone else in Deborah Harkness’ world.
Diana Bishop isn’t the only strong woman in the show. Fellow witch Satu and vampire Juliette are both dangerous and driven. Harkness’ women are powerful, fiercely independent, and totally uninterested in accommodating the scores of old white men constantly telling them what to do.
A Discovery of Witches debuts January 17, 2019 simultaneously on Sundance Now and SHUDDER.