Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches Season One

AMC Networks/AMC studios

Starring: Alexandra Daddario, Tongayi Chirisa. Jack Huston, Harry Hamlin

2/5 stars

It’s not that Alexandra Daddario is wrong for the role. Sure, Dr. Rowan Fielding is a tall icy blonde not given to spontaneous smiles and uncomfortable in light conversational gambits, but Charlize Theron can’t play everything. Daddario is striking and memorable, as she showed in White Lotus Series 1 when surrounded by a bevy of unlikable attention sucks. She’s in a similar quagmire here, but Southern style.

And there’s no real reason either Aaron Lightner or Michael Curry couldn’t have been cast with black actors. Sure, you’d forego the whole Irish Choirboy side of Michael’s past, but when we first meet him, he’s a successful San Franciscan contractor every bit as urbane and confident as Ciprien Grieve (what a name, a bit more obscure than Rice’s penchant) seems to be. And I suppose you might want to avoid the wise black savior/shaman role for Aaron, but does that mean you should forego the shaman part and the wisdom altogether? Aaron is basically a mystic, as a lifelong (possible elder) in the Talamasca community (part of Rice’s world-building that crosses several of her series), a secret society much like Buffy’s Watchers. Except one even more prone to just passive observation of what all the vampires, werewolves, mummies, ghosts and witches do. And Aaron has a pretty good secret of his own, in that as we meet him in the book he’s clearly tiring of life on the sidelines, and more than willing to be more directly involved with this kooky, murderous, and haunted family of interbred and secretive witches.

But one thing you really can’t do, and stay true to Anne Rice’s story, is make Aaron and Michael into the same person, despite the charisma of Tongayi Chirisa. Because the whole point of their interaction is Michael’s complete innocence regarding the supernatural. He’s always in recovery after a near-death experience transforms his life. All he has to go on from that point on is his love for Rowan (they met cute when she pulled him out of the San Francisco Bay and onto her boat), and his nostalgic and simplistic Catholic faith in good and evil. Rice made it clear that when it comes to love, Rowan likes them big and stupid, and Michael’s high-end carpentry just barely kept him in the running with the sailors, bartenders, and policemen she usually approached. Cip never stands even that chance against a cloud of energy that can give her whatever she wants, wherever she is. He’s too intellectual, too wary to be excused for leaving every boundary behind when it comes to Rowan.

As a character, he just can’t logically be gifted with both confounding psychometry and also a be a leading member of a cabal of mystics. He should fully understand psychic phenomena and how to respond to the threats of witches, ghosts and a twisted history going back thirteen generations. If he’s also still her dream fantasy of husband material, we need to see that coming from Daddario, who at best seems only mildly intrigued by him.

The story is in part, like most Rice adventures, a twisted romance novel after all. So while I get what the producers are doing in updating the story for a more modern sensibility, they are effectively telling an all-new story with only the basic trappings of the trilogy (or at least the most obvious big plot points). And it turns out I’m a very big old school stan of the trilogy going back to its original days on the best-seller lists. It’s also odd that in racially integrating the family seamlessly and without comment, they’ve ignored so many opportunities to explore Rice’s actual awareness of racial issues in New Orleans (which I’ve recently heard categorized as part of a Colonial Caribbean system going from the Gulf coast up to the mid-Atlantic and down to central America), including depicting most of the colonial Mayfair ancestors as ruthless slavers and writing an early book on the free people of color of in New Orleans in the 1840s (The Feast of All Saints, 1979).

I can see compressing those thirteen generations for the purpose of a limited TV-series (and they’re apparently moving right along to Lasher for the just renewed season 2). A few of the characters they preserved and amalgamated made sense. Deirdre was pretty convincingly captured in all her tragedy by Annabeth Gish for her brief run in the first couple of episodes, but it’s no fair to skip over her mother Antha and her flapper grandmother Stella and so many of the other former “legacies” that comprised whole chapters of the book. Stella’s brief, tragic life is basically The Great Gatsby if written by Tennessee Williams, and that’s just a passing nod and a flapper dress brought down from the attic?

Collapsing Cortland Mayfair’s life to Rowan’s present (and basically having him stand in for Julian, the 19th century dandy and only male witch in the direct line) was reasonably smart, especially if you’ve got Harry Hamlin to turn on the corrupt and fading charm. But the other witches we meet weren’t even in the books. Whatever Tessa or Josephine or Millie’s ghost (why?) may offer, shouldn’t we be focusing on Mona and Gifford and Beatrice and Ancient Evelyn instead? Carlotta’s memorably cruel attempts to fight prophecies is rather memorably captured by horror mainstay Beth Grant, but even she doesn’t get Carlotta’s crafty menace or her stranglehold on the old house hiding hideous secrets.

And who cares about the Talamasca functionaries helping the walking contradiction that is Ciprien, or his pregnant sister who walks on from some other show altogether just to witness him survive one of Lasher’s attacks? He can be either Rowan’s advisor or her lover, but he fails at both just as surely as the original two men did in the book, outwitted and outmatched by Lasher and his unstable harem at every turn. Add these missteps to the show’s refusal (or inability) to show just how wealthy all the Mayfairs are (Rowan is a sailor because her adoptive mother owns a yacht, which they docked at the oceanfront glass house they owned in San Francisco city limits), you’ve taken all the escapist fantasy elements out of the story and replaced them with a kind of lurid seediness and hazy spooky lightning for Rowan’s frequent dips into ghostly fantasies, with a few gory special effects.

I wanted a lot more. I find it hard to believe that the author who had Tom Cruise prove he was talented enough to play Lestat would support this many compromises.

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