Friday, 1 May 2015

Kindred: the Embraced, a retrospective

Kindred: the Embraced holds the honour of being the first (and still, the only) live action television series adapted from a tabletop roleplaying game. Running for a brief eight episodes in 1996, Kindred is the story of rival vampire clans jostling for control of San Francisco’s underworld, drawing its mythos from the top-selling rpg "Vampire: the Masquerade." Emerging from the stable of soap opera impresario Aaron Spelling, the series prompted more comparisons with fellow Spelling productions Melrose Place and Beverly Hills, 90210 than with contemporary horror media. The casting may have had something to do with it: vampire San Francisco was populated with soap and genre journeymen like Patrick Bachau, Kelly Rutherford and Stacy Haiduk; the cast was headed up by peripheral Brat Pack alumnus C. Thomas Howell and then up-and-coming British actor Mark Frankel as ‘prince’ of the city, Julian Luna.

Though Howell’s character is the audience’s surrogate (as the principal non-vampire), the series belongs to Frankel. Julian Luna dominates every episode – by turns a romantic mystery man, tragic lover, wise leader, and action hero. Frankel’s best scenes are the high points of the series, but the strength of his performance also highlights the series’ structural weakness: it is not until the final episode that we finally encounter a character that is not essentially a foil for Julian Luna. Fox Television cancelled Kindred: the Embraced shortly after but, seeing its potential, the Showtime Network quickly negotiated to revive the series the same year. What finished Kindred was Frankel’s death in a motorcycle accident the same year – without its star, the series had little to offer.

I find it very difficult to write critically about Kindred: the Embraced. The series was a formative gothic experience for me, my first experience of the ‘vampire-as-protagonist’ genre, in parallel with Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire (1994). Equally, as a lifelong roleplayer, it is hard not to hold at least a little affection for the drama that led me to White Wolf’s "World of Darkness" (the umbrella term for "Vampire: the Masquerade" and its sister games). Mark Frankel’s performance aside however, the series has considerable shortcomings. Kindred’s scripts are clich├ęd and its direction frequently indifferent. A significant proportion of the cast appear to have been hired only to pout. The purpose of this retrospective is not to unearth a lost masterpiece, but to revisit a particular cultural moment: mainstream American television’s discovery of the vampire.

Smolder, smolder, smolder...

The early 90s had seen a quiet boom in ‘vampire tv’. The resurrected Dark Shadows (1991) placed bloodsucker Barnabas Collins at the centre of the narrative (he had been a latecomer to the original series). Forever Knight (1992-96) gave us the vampire-as-protagonist within the ‘occult detective’ genre. A handful of other tv movies and failed pilots peppered the line-up (among them the 1991 Blood Ties, unrelated to the 2007 series). What links these series aesthetically is a kind of bloodless sexuality. Network television was willing to go so far as to acknowledge that vampires had sex, but this was almost always in the context of romance. Outside of clearly telegraphed loved triangles, 90s tv vampires were strangely monogamous (with visits to the blood bank, or weird science, to explain how they sated their urges without accusations of hanky-panky). Kindred: the Embraced goes so far as to make a promiscuous vampire one episodes ‘problem of the week’. Vampires without romantic attachments feed from narratively-designated ‘bad people’ (mobsters, drug users) in ways that are clearly meant to evoke violence but are carefully pitched to avoid anything either sexy or threatening. There is, as we might have guessed by now, very little same-sex biting.

Party like a Goth...

The 90s tv vampire exists in marked contrast to his contemporary cinema counterpart. Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995) confronts the issues that these series avoid, with considerable power. The aforementioned Interview with the Vampire shies away from many of the sexual aspects of its source material, but at least has the decency to acknowledge same-sex desire, and the short Freudian jump from sex to death that makes the figure of the vampire so compelling. Kindred’s title sequence opens with the shot that ends Interview (the camera panning around the Golden Gate Bridge) as if the series would have us think it continued where the film left off. The promise only leaves us disappointed.

A reminder of how far the tv vampire has come puts the success of True Blood (2008-14) into perspective. It took a decade of changing attitudes and the freedom offered by subscription cable television to give the public a vampire series worthy of the name. For all the success of Buffy and Angel, those series only gradually climbed out of the 90s mould and struggled to drag the vampire out of the ‘romantic or monster’ binary. True Blood gave us vampires in all their predatory, sexual glory. I’m left to ponder what Mark Frankel would have been like as Bill Compton.

Richard Gough Thomas is a postgraduate researcher in Gothic studies at Manchester Metropolitan University.  In his spare time he's the Santa Claus of academia, delivering books and knowledge wherever he goes.

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