As I recently mentioned in a review for Neil Jordan's latest vampire fable, Byzantium, popular culture seems to have reached something of a cool-down point when it comes to its recurring fascination with vampires, a craze that ebbs and flows without ever fully disappearing. The last time it reached a level somewhat similar to what we've experienced in this "Twilight" (and counter-Twilight) era was during the '90s, hallmarked by an ever-growing regard for Anne Rice's series of Vampire Chronicles books, the Buffy television culture, and the way Bram Stoker's Dracula and Interview With the Vampire reinvigorated the cinematic face of human bloodsuckers. Crammed in the middle of all that was a lesser-known, short-lived television series entitled Kindred: The Embraced, yet another victim of Fox's notoriously hasty cancellation methods. Only this time, it's not as complicated to grasp why this show didn't make it (aside from unavoidable casting issues), where convoluted mythology and exaggerated performances often overshadow its pulpy storytelling strengths and rich setting.
Kindred: The Embraced siphons its inspiration from a tabletop role-playing game, White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade (now also a series of computer games), which puts players in the position of choosing how their vampire character develops supernatural abilities and retains their humanity, while dealing with the politics of rival vampire clans, bloodlines, and sects. The television show carries over the rudiments of this universe, where five of San Francisco's prominent clans operate under the judicious enforcement of one "prince": a dark-haired, chiseled, social and financial powerhouse, Julian (Mark Frankel). While the existence of these "kindred" remains under wraps by disguising themselves as humans, referred to as the "Masquerade" and upheld by a conclave, a determined police detective, Frank (C. Thomas Howell), suspects Julian of being more than an everyday businessman, leading to his discovery of the existence of vampires in the bay area. Despite Julian's somewhat neutral demeanor, it becomes Frank's duty -- after a traumatic experience -- to probe deeper into their hidden world and wreak havoc on the kindred.
A lot of world-building and lore gets haphazardly crammed into the pilot episode of Kindred: The Embraced, from establishing a rough identity for all five clans and their leader's prowess, to showcasing some of their powers (and weaknesses) as vampires, to setting up the cop-drama angle involving Frank's investigation (and how the vampires influence law enforcement). The cold, hard truth is that this premiere episode ends up being rather unremarkably scatterbrained and campy to a point of inducing cringes, where flimsy dialogue gets forced through strained performances and over-the-top scenarios (like the antics during a funeral scene). Frank never gets his hooks in as a relevant or compelling protagonist, mostly because he's little more than an angsty detective-drama copy whose presence feels lost in this universe. And the mythology at work here ends up being a bizarre jumble that you've just got to roll with, from the kindred's fickleness in tolerating sunlight to the beastly shapes they take and their ability to heal human wounds. It's easy to understand why one might quickly consider bailing on the series after such a messy intro.
Kindred: The Embraced does improve once it's moved beyond the pilot, though, starting right with the second episode, "Prince of the City". The writers clearly understood that questions needed to be answered about the supernatural enigmas, which happens (though, in off-kilter ways that tinker with the original Masquerade narrative and familiar vampire lore), and that the series needed to focus on more intriguing pursuits that better suited the setting, namely the inter-clan conflicts. Julian -- powered by Mark Frankel's brooding, magnetic performance -- stands at the center of the intrigue, whose less-aggressive, balanced persona discovers some interesting personal layers as the figurehead of what's essentially a hokey vampiric take on mobster-warfare stories like The Godfather. His connections to the outside world, namely his romantic draw to a female human reporter, Caitlin (Kelly Rutherford), and protective approach towards his fiery rebellious niece, Sasha (Brigid Brannagh), weave with the squabbles between the five clans and his vigilance towards preserving the Masquerade.
Each episode of Kindred: The Embraced focuses on another rift threatening to upset the balance between the different clans; sometimes, in the case of the Brujah clan and their hot-headed leader, Eddie (a bluntly menacing Brian Thompson), and with Julian's mistress and head of another clan, Lillie (Stacy Haiduk), the disruption is intentional. This presents the series with opportunities for eerie atmosphere and brisk tension to complicate the setting, which it occasionally capitalizes on to either macabre or monotonous effects. Granted, the soapy tone established in the pilot only marginally fades, where provocative sensuality, devious mustache-twirling close-ups, and lavish plays at romanticism featuring gorgeous starlets often overshoot their intentions. That becomes part of the series' charm, in a way: driven by events with on-the-nose themes like "Romeo and Juliet" and "Bad Moon Rising", its quasi-political, quasi-romantic drama tries to find a balance between '90s TV-production mannerisms and edgy broadcast-acceptable storytelling that would feel right at home in this generation's vampire climate.
Unluckily for the show's meager cult following, due to poor broadcast performance and the ill-fated passing of Mark Frankel after its abrupt cancellation, Kindred: The Embraced only got to enjoy a brief existence. Lasting eight episodes across two months and ending on a peculiar note with only marginal "closure" -- in an abstract sort of way, at that -- one could probably make a case for the show getting canned a bit too early and simply being developed in the wrong era; with a little updating, it'd feel right at home as a competitor with True Blood and Vampire Diaries. As it is now, however, the dated style, overcooked performances, and messy lore leave this collection of episodes latching onto nostalgia for its appeal, unable to properly weather the tests of time despite its innovative glimpse at the ... more introspective, less villainous side of vampires, their relationships and how their machinations keep them hidden from humanity. Perhaps the Masquerade will resume the next time the vampire fad finds its pop-culture pulse.
Kindred: The Embraced arrives in a surprisingly snazzy, well-designed collector's package from CBS/Paramount, especially considering its brief run. Presented in a sturdy book-style casing with raised details in the letters and rose petals on the front cover, the box opens up much like the front hard cover of a novel, revealing a cast photo printed on the backside. Inside, underneath the thin DVD holder itself -- three silver discs in a flimsy slip-out cardboard folder -- and a faux-envelope package with a "K" seal, are a special printing of The Book of Nod, an extensive lore companion for the Vampire: The Masquerade, and a personal letter from show creator John Leekley.
Video and Audio:
All eight episodes of Kindred: The Embraced emerge from the shadows across three discs in CBS/Paramount's series package, presented in eight accurately-framed 1.33:1 transfers in a mixed bag that likely adheres to its broadcast appearance -- with a few noticeable flaws. Hefty grain, bulky black levels that absorb details, and some noticeable combing/ghosting issues hamper the already limited visual fidelity of the low-budget show, fighting against the inherent flatness of the source. That being said, it's an incredibly watchable, largely stable presentation aside from that scrutiny: it gets the job done in replicating skin tones and some of the lavish set design's vibrant colors, while general details in droplets of blood, hair, and clothing make an effort towards image steadiness and palette substance while the show plays with depth of field. These aren't great transfers, but they're suitable enough to satisfy the needs for returning to the series.
A chain of 5-channel Dolby Digital surround tracks accompany the discs, attempting to add depth and richness to the limited surround capabilities of the original broadcast intentions. It ends up being partly successful: there's a lot of heavy atmosphere in its romantic and mysterious tones, affording many opportunities to come at its audience with the original audio design's curios, such as erupting fire and shattering glass. Most of the sound elements are somewhat hollow and lack depth, but at least they give it the old college try and pack enough of a punch to be admissible. Dialogue hits similar notes of quality, where none of the verbal content is inaudible yet it's restrained by the source in terms of fidelity. It's a better treatment than I'd expect for a re-release, despite a few niggling issues.
Along with the Extended Cut of the Pilot and Recaps accompanying all the previous episodes (including the unaired episode, "Nightstalker"), a few of Kindred: The Embraced's installments also come with Audio Commentaries featuring show creator John Leekley and his crew: the Pilot, with Peter Medek; "Romeo and Juliet", with Ralph Hemecker; "Bad Moon Rising", with James Conway going in solo; and "Cabin in the Woods", again with Hemecker. Leekley showcases a clear passion for his project and some melancholy over its demise, but it's interesting to hear his -- and his directors' -- impressions as the commentaries lead to the unexpected but uniquely fitting "finale". Deleted Scenes can also be found for "Nightstalker", "Romeo and Juliet", and "Cabin in the Woods", as well as a vintage Trailer on Disc One.
Disc Two and Disc Three feature a few newly-produced retrospectives and analyses for the show, starting with Vampire: The Masquerade - Origin of The Kindred (8:30, 16x9). It briefly touches on the series' origin in the World of Darkness role-playing universe, describing the lore's foundation and its influence on the modern perception of vampires. Fans of the show will relish the Daedalus: Last Will and Testament (12:26, 16x9) piece built for this release, featuring Jeff Kober in character (he's in costume and performing on a set reminiscent of the show's aesthetic) in a lengthy recorded message/speech. But the special feature its following will relish is the two-part The Kindred Chronicles (29:35, 29:58; 16x9), featuring interviews with Leekley and his cast and crew, including C. Thomas Howell, Jeff Kober, Stacy Haiduk, Brigid Brannagh, and others. They reminisce over the creation and world-building involved with the series, fondly touching on its lingering appeal for a nearly feature-length stretch of content.
Those looking to branch out with their insatiable vampire-TV cravings will discover glimmers of familiar enjoyment in Kindred: The Embraced, though it's more of a '90s guilty-pleasure rendition of a promising concept than a lost gem worth seeking out. Politics, relationships, and less-monstrous depictions of vampires spread across this eight-episode run of a series inspired by White Wolf's pen-and-paper role-playing game, mixing campy tones and wobbly mythology with somewhat forward-thinking ideas about how to evolve the genre. If you can look beyond a shaky pilot (and a few other meandering plots) and sink your teeth into the dynamic created by the vampires' ring-leading "prince", Julian, and how he impacts the unstable balance among San Francisco's other clans, you'll find a handful of attention-holding, amusingly trashy episodes here about the motives and ideological clashes behind keeping the immortals' secret. Fans of the show will definitely want to pick up this snazzy deluxe package for the extra materials CBS/Paramount have pieced together, but most others -- traditional vampire enthusiasts and fans of the recent bloodsucker shows out there -- will want to give it a Rental first.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site