For those of you who thought vampire romances were finally going out of style, shame on you. This genre is as immortal as the sexy, emotionally tortured bloodsuckers it’s built upon and will continue to dominate pop culture so long as there are gorgeous (preferably accented) people willing to gaze adoringly into each others’ eyes. And thank God for that, because A Discovery of Witches is basically every hopeless romantic’s dream come true.
Some TV fans (read: TV snobs) might be dismissive of a forbidden love story between a witch and vampire, but for true supernatural/fantasy fans, A Discovery of Witches — which aired in the U.K. on Sky One, but makes its U.S. debut on Sundance Now and Shudder on Jan. 17 — delivers exactly what it promises: love, danger, a little bit of lust and a swoon-worthy story you’ll want to binge over and over again.
In its first season (with two more on the way), A Discovery of Witches doubles down on some ever-popular supernatural romance tropes, this time set against the misty backdrop of Oxford University as the autumnal equinox approaches. Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer), a non-practicing witch, alarmingly finds herself in the middle of a hunt for an ancient manuscript that even the most powerful witches, daemons and vampires haven’t been able to get their hands on for centuries. One vampire in particular, Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode), finds himself more tangled up with Diana than planned while seeking out the book, and thus a forbidden love story ensues. (If that premise doesn’t immediately draw you in, don’t worry. That just means this series was probably never meant for you anyways.)
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A Discovery of Witches does not play coy about the fact that it’s an in-your-face romance story created specifically for romantics. When adapting the novel, there was clearly a conscious decision made to include every stolen glance, brush of the fingers, moonlit walk and passionate encounter that Diana and Matthew shared. Rather than toning down the romance and focusing on the supernatural elements (which many series have done in recent years for fear of being labeled “cheesy”), A Discovery of Witches seemed keenly aware of the fact that, at its core, it’s an overblown love story — and it’s completely fine with that. In fact, it leans right into it from the get-go and never lets up. While the longing looks and cravings for blood might make some roll their eyes, every second of A Discovery of Witches is pure catnip for fans of this genre, and it’s nice to be able to dive into a decadent love affair for a few hours of escapism at the end of the day.
As for the performances by leads Goode and Palmer, it’s somewhat shocking to realize that in his long and diverse career, Goode has not once played a vampire, raising the pesky question: Who the frack has been asleep at the wheel in Hollywood’s casting department? The phrase “tall dark and handsome” pretty much seems to have been created for him, and the intensity he brings to each scene — whether romantic or predatory — is definitely an important ingredient in making this series so addictive. Teresa Palmer, on the other hand, brings a quiet strength to a character who could have been pushed and pulled and ultimately overshadowed by a narrative that often turned her into a passenger in her own life.
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While there’s definitely an overdose of common fantasy tropes in A Discovery of Witches (a painfully uninformed main character who also might just be the most powerful being on the planet, a vampire craving the blood of the object of his affection, etc.), there’s also more than enough unique elements and impressive world-building going on alongside those tropes to sustain the series’ weaker elements. The inclusion of a third species, daemons, whose powers are never fully explored but whose presence adds a novel layer of complexity to the story, is a welcome addition to an otherwise predictable narrative.
The aspect of the series which struggled most noticeably is its pacing. The ever-evolving plot speeds by at a breakneck speed, leaving the viewer without many moments to come up for air. This issue is no doubt a result of trying to squeeze a plot-heavy, 576-page novel into eight episodes. Normally, with so little wiggle room to play around with, adaptations like this tend to sheer away non-essential side characters and condense certain storylines where they can, but A Discovery of Witches did neither of those things. While book purists no doubt rejoiced to see every character beat and storyline included from Diana and Matthew’s intoxicating love story, the inclusion of so much material ultimately caused this first season to feel weighed down by the burden of its own storyline, where key plot points were revealed and then coasted by in favor of making it to the next big plot point.
Here’s hoping the series is granted additional episodes in its next two seasons to give Diana and Matthew’s story a little more room to breathe.
A Discovery of Witches premieres Jan. 17 on Sundance Now and Shudder.
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