There’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to Mayfair Witches. It’s another Anne Rice AMC adaptation following the success of Interview with the Vampire. It’s based on beloved source material. Alexandra Daddario is in it. It seems like no expense has been spared on the production. And yet, after the first season premiere, “The Witching Hour”, there’s a shrugging quality to the whole thing that left me faintly depressed.
I can’t speak to the quality of the adaptation. I haven’t read the Lives of the Mayfair Witches trilogy. There’s just something about the material as presented that seems tired, overly familiar, and perhaps a little too relaxed, as though it’s letting the production design do most of the work and relying on Rice’s cultural cache to fill in the gaps. It feels like a show that knows it’s going to be liked, or at least watched, without having to earn the audience’s attention.
Daddario is always a welcome presence, and often an underused one, but even she seems to be going through the motions here as Rowan Fielding. She lives on a boat and works in a hospital as a surgeon who clashes with the higher-ups because she’s right and knows it and can’t keep quiet about it. She’s adopted, which we know because it’s mentioned constantly, and Erica Gimpel plays her secretive adoptive mother, Ellie, who is dying of cancer. There’s no mystery about the fact that Rowan hasn’t been told the truth about her heritage, and after a couple of accidental killings during which Rowan “imagines” a blood vessel exploding inside the head or heart of whichever privileged man she’s annoyed with, we know that her heritage has something to do with witches.
We also know this because about half of “The Witching Hour” is devoted to flashback sequences during which we meet Rowan’s mother, Deidre (played as a youth by Cameron Inman and as a catatonic 47-year-old woman by Annabeth Gish), and an obviously supernatural villain, Lasher (Jack Huston). Young Deidre becomes pregnant, manipulated into the conception by her creepy uncle Cortland (Harry Hamlin), and she’s forced to give the child away to Ellie with explicit instructions that her true identity can never be revealed for her own good. The pieces slot together nicely, and when Rowan begins fretting about her new powers suddenly manifesting, Ellie contacts a New Orleans agency and tasks the guy looking after Rowan’s file, Ciprien Grieve (Tongayi Chirisa), with figuring out what’s going on.
The ease with which this all comes together doesn’t fill me with much hope for the rest of this eight-episode series, which thus far hasn’t done anything to suggest it’ll be full of surprises. As I say, I haven’t read the novels, but I had put together information that the premiere was treating as mysterious about half an hour before we got to each revelation, and if I squint a little, I can see the outline of the entire season stretching out before me.
Daddario, or at least her interpretation of the character, might be the saving grace. She’s almost always good, but it’s more so that this version of Mayfair Witches imagines her as a kind of girl-boss avenging angel, hanging out on a boat, drinking, having casual sex, and exploding the heads of arrogant men who – thus far, anyway – have all deserved it. It might have been a more engaging twist if she was accidentally rupturing the carotid arteries of people who weren’t openly villainous, but maybe we’ll get that down the line. In the books, Rowan can decide who lives and who dies, which seems to be the direction we’re heading in here, though we’ve only seen the “dies” portion of this power manifest just yet, and even then in a way that’s currently beyond her control.
For now, at least, AMC’s new streaming show occupies an awkward position of not being as campy and out-there as something like Wednesday but also being a bit too silly to be taken seriously as a drama. I have no idea where it’ll go, and perhaps that’s for the best, but hopefully, it’s somewhere a bit more interesting than the premiere suggests.