If you’ve only read the first five pages of a book and could immediately tell you weren’t going to get along with it, is that technically DNFing? Does it count if you literally couldn’t make it past the first chapter?
That is what happened when I attempted to read Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches. When the book and I didn’t get along (I can’t even tell you why – something about the writing bugged me), I thought I would try the TV series, which is basically a mash-up of Twilight, True Blood, and Outlander.
I was drawn by what is admittedly a fascinating premise. Reluctant witch and scientific historian Diana Bishop somehow manages to call up a lost manuscript that “creatures” – witches, vampires, and demons – have been searching for for centuries, as it’s rumored to be a kind of Book of Life that tells the origin of species. This is especially significant now, as apparently creatures have been running out of magic: witches can’t do spells, vampires can’t make new vampires, and vampire scientist Matthew Claremont is trying to find out why. So when Diana calls up the lost book, Matthew notices, and inevitably, he notices Diana too. When their saccharine, instalove relationship becomes known to the Congregation – a council of creatures who play politics – it becomes a problem, as cross-species relationships are forbidden.
It’s actually a clever premise with many interesting ideas waiting to be explored. A lost, alchemical manuscript purported to have the secrets of life! Thorny politics on the interspecies Congregation! Cross-species children thought to be impossible! Declining magic! Unfortunately, most of the conflict takes a backseat to what becomes the driving force of the story: Matthew and Diana’s special, fated, forbidden love.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with establishing forbidden love as the central conflict. The problem here, however, is that Matthew and Diana’s relationship undergoes absolutely no build-up. How can viewers root for a relationship they haven’t seen develop properly? And boy, some of the ridiculous lines these actors are forced to spout as they declare their love for one another are truly Harlequin-worthy.
It doesn’t help that both Matthew and Diana are so…bland. Diana, as a character, is whatever the plot needs her to be: brilliant historian, naive ingenue, feisty rebel. She’s so utterly passive, completely swept up by the plot and by Matthew, who is only marginally more interesting. In fact, it’s actually the secondary characters that give the show added depths: Diana’s aunts, Matthew’s vampire lab assistants Malcolm and Miriam, Matthew’s mother, the enigmatic Finnish witch Satu Jarvinen, and literally everyone on the Congregation with a speaking role. For two central characters, Matthew and Diana are just so tragically uninteresting. When interacting with the secondary characters, they’re fine, but together, they’re just a charisma vacuum. I couldn’t care less about their relationship.
Obviously, this is not an issue with the TV show, but with the source material itself. An adaptation can only do so much. At least the actors do a great job – there’s a surprising amount of A-list actors on this show!
But I did like enough of the series to binge-watch its entirety in a short weekend. So, what did I enjoy? Well:
- The absolutely gorgeous cinematography. The show is shot in various places, such as Oxford, Wales, Scotland, Venice, and upstate New York. The gorgeous, sweeping panoramas of Oxord’s gothic spires. The glittering canals of Venice. The green mountains of Scotland. The cozy, witchy farms of upstate New York. It’s these views that are swoon-worthy, not the romance.
- Satu Jarvinen, a mysterious Finnish witch played impeccably by Swedish actress Malin Buska. It’s difficult to know exactly where Satu’s loyalties lie, as we don’t learn very much about her. She’s reserved, ruthless, and closed-off, with the occasional hints of vulnerability, hinting at some kind of trauma in her past. Her scenes with Diana are electric.
- A fast-paced narrative. It’s odd, because not a lot happens in these eight episodes, but they flew by, and I couldn’t stop watching. I love binge-worthy shows, so kudos to the writers for making this show so damn interesting and compelling, even as I kept groaning aloud whenever the romance came into play.
Ultimately, I did enjoy the show, and will 100% watch the second season even if I have to roll my eyes throughout its entirety.