Remember the paranormal romance boom of the late aughts? Then you might be familiar with Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy books, which tracked an expansive world of royal vampire intrigue and forbidden love affairs. After a 2014 film adaptation starring Zoey Deutch received lackluster attention, Peacock has opted to give this long-gestating IP a full TV adaptation. Let’s get into it…
Opening Shot: A Breaking Dawn: Part 2 credits-style montage rapidly dumps all the information you need to understand the Vampire Academy world, which includes three kinds of vampires and ancient, competing royal bloodlines. It’s… a lot.
The Gist: In case the first 10 seconds left you with more questions than answers, here’s a run-down: In the Vampire Academy world, there are three kinds of vampires: The Moroi, high-status and pureblood vampires who can wield magic; the Dhampir, half-human, half-Moroi “Guardians” who dedicate their lives to protecting the Moroi; and Strigoi, bloodthirsty and undead vampires who are considered evil abominations.
Moroi princess Vasilisa “Lissa” Dragomir (Daniela Nieves) and Dhampir Guardian-in-training Rose Hathaway (Sisi Stringer) have been inseparable since childhood. Since the queen (played by Pik Sen Lim) has already named Lissa’s older brother Andre (Jason Diaz) as her successor, leaving the girls to dream of traveling the world together once they graduate from St. Vladimir’s Academy (the titular vampire academy).
But all of that changes when Lissa’s parents and brother are killed in a seemingly freak accident that leaves Lissa as the only surviving Dragomir heir. Suddenly, the girls risk being torn apart, as Lissa is forced to get serious about her royal duties and Rose finds herself usurped by Lissa’s hunky new Guardian Dimitri Belikov (Kieron Moore), who just so happens to be her teacher. Meanwhile, Lissa is making eyes at resident outcast Christian Ozera (André Dae Kim), a smooth-talking new student whose parents voluntarily became evil Strigoi.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? I can’t write this review without acknowledging that Vampire Academy was co-created by Julie Plec — a.k.a. the mastermind behind the aughts vampire phenomenon that was The Vampire Diaries. This show hasn’t come close to the paranormal melodrama that made Vampire Diaries such a hit, but at least its creative team has the right track record.
Our Take: At a time when there are roughly 500 TV shows jostling for our attention at any given time, Vampire Academy asks a lot of its viewers. Its stream of new characters and vampire species and royal families can be difficult for non-book fans to parse, so watching this show with subtitles comes highly recommended.
Unfortunately, the latest adaptation of Richelle Mead’s beloved YA books struggles to reward the audience effort it takes to understand this chaotic, complex world. Key details like what the hell the Moroi and Dhampir are and how the monarchy works are glossed over within the first 10 seconds, yet the writers are content to let their characters deliver painfully obvious foreshadowing and info-dumping — Lissa raises a toast to having everything she wants right before her entire family gets murdered, and Rose feels the need to remind Lissa of her relationships with each Dragomir in detail, even though they’ve been friends since early childhood.
My personal favorite detail: A Guardian board that reads: “X nights since last Strigoi attack,” which is a hilarious (and unintentional?) nod to The Office’s famous “0 days since our last nonsense” meme.
It doesn’t help that, despite the show having much more time in this world than its clunky 2014 film counterpart, Lissa and Rose’s core friendship feels woefully underdeveloped. The two remain separated for much of the pilot, where they’re forced to speak ad nauseum about their bond instead of letting the two actresses’ serviceable chemistry speak for itself. Stringer gets the shorter end of the stick, as her role is largely limited to the generic spunk and snark of your prototypical YA heroine. Nieves fares a bit better, balancing Lissa’s unassuming sweetness and subtle regality in a manner befitting the strange position into which her character has been thrown.
Many of Peacock’s early standout shows (Rutherford Falls, Girls5eva, We Are Lady Parts) have been short-form comedies that get along just fine on smaller budgets. As its first major foray into fantasy, Vampire Academy shows the seams of the fledgling streamer’s abilities. Many of the show’s sets are clearly artificial, Hogwarts-esque imitations of the real thing. The costumes look and CGI appear similarly makeshift (the modern setting lets royal vampires get away with wearing prom dresses, apparently), and generic pop music blares underneath every key moment. It’s these granular details that make the show feel more like lovingly made fanfiction than a fantasy world ready to stand on its own across 10 episodes.
Sex and Skin: Before meeting his tragic demise, at least Andre enjoyed a quickie in a party coat room with a vampire girl who’d been making eyes at him.
Parting Shot: As Rose jolts up from bed with a vision of a panicked Lissa being named the queen’s successor, the camera pulls away from the Guardian dorm and pans over the vampires’ castle-ridden campus.
Sleeper Star: In a lesser character’s hands, a quippy outcast like Christian could become very cringeworthy, very fast. Luckily, Dae Kim is charismatic enough to make him into an enticing love interest for Lissa (although, let’s be real, she and Rose would easily make the best couple).
Most Pilot-y Line: In an opening voiceover, Rose and Lissa remind us: “The spark of revolution can come from anywhere. Even two unlikely friends, and one night that changed everything.”
Our Call: SKIP IT. While there’s nothing truly terrible about Vampire Academy, there’s little about it that stands out amid today’s crop of fantastical YA dramas. Between this and the 2014 film of the same name, fans will have to wait a bit longer for a worthy adaptation of Richelle Mead’s book series.
Abby Monteil is a New York-based writer. Her work has also appeared in The Daily Beast, Insider, Them, Thrillist, Elite Daily, and others.