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Not to suggest literature’s most famous star-crossed lovers didn’t have it rough, but at least Romeo didn’t grow up learning to kill Juliet on sight — and at least Juliet wasn’t biting back on a primal urge to drain Romeo of his blood.
That’s the conundrum at the heart of First Kill, which charts the saga of Juliette (Sarah Catherine Hook), the youngest scion of an ancient and powerful lineage of vampires, and her new high school classmate Calliope (Imani Lewis), the late-blooming baby in a clan of monster hunters. It’s a premise ripe for angsty drama, steamy romance and intricate lore. Alas, though the series tries to deliver them all, its eight-episode debut season is undermined on every front by bland execution that renders it more painless than addictive.
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First Kill, which is based on a short story by creator V.E. Schwab, opens with both girls at a crossroads. Juliette is under pressure from her parents, icy Margot (Elizabeth Mitchell) and warmer Sebastian (Will Swenson), to be a good girl and undergo the vampire rite of passage that is exsanguinating her first human. But she’s the sort of gal who deals with an errant bee by gently scooping it up in her hands; the idea of harming a living being makes her sick to her stomach.
Calliope, meanwhile, is eager to bag her first monster after a lifetime of training to do just that. At 16, she’s already older than her big brothers Apollo (Dominic Goodman) and Theo (Phillip Mullings Jr.) were when they slaughtered their first beasts — and more than ready to prove herself to her overprotective parents, Talia (Aubin Wise) and Jack (Jason Robert Moore).
Both girls get the chance they’ve been waiting for when a game of spin-the-bottle lands them together in a classmate’s pantry. Before either can move in for the (literal) kill, however, they can’t resist a hot-and-heavy makeout session. And so begins a romance with the potential not only to destroy both girls and everyone they care about, but to upend their families’ entire way of life.
At its most delectable, First Kill leans into the cheese. In the premiere, directed by Jet Wilkinson, the girls send jars of cherries smashing across the pantry floor as they lose themselves in the ecstasy of their embrace. Left to her own devices, Juliette lies in bed daydreaming about Calliope’s eyes, or dreaming of hungry kisses and juicy peaches.
Later episodes pull back on the rampant horniness for more serious-minded conflict as their relationship forces both girls, and the communities surrounding them, to question the very values they’ve constructed their lives around. The show isn’t subtle about its themes and metaphors, which it often spells out in bookending voiceovers about the importance of severing ties or what really makes a monster. Nor is it cagey about its references; at one point, Calliope and Juliette hang out on a school play set for Romeo & Juliet while trading some of its most recognizable lines.
The series also gradually surrounds its couple with an expansive mythos that stretches back to the Garden of Eden and snakes around the entire globe. In addition to vampires, it comprises a whole world of monsters including zombies and banshees and ghouls (some of which are rendered onscreen in iffy CG). And then there are the mysterious backstories for supporting characters like Theo or Juliette’s black-sheep brother Oliver (Dylan McNamara), which should help provide fuel enough for seasons to come.
Add it all up, and First Kill might as well be tailor-made to grow fandoms. It’s not hard to imagine a devoted viewer breathlessly cataloguing the supernatural creatures mentioned in passing, or penning fan fiction about Apollo’s love-hate dynamic with Juliette’s equally arrogant big sister Elinor (Gracie Dzienny, having more fun than the rest of the cast combined).
But it is harder than it should be to envision too many people getting that invested to begin with. Having laid out an entire universe of supernatural lore and tangled interpersonal connections, First Kill struggles to shade in much depth or texture. The sets have the anodyne sleekness of furniture catalogs; supporting characters range from one-dimensional to two-dimensional. We get a lot of information, or at least teases of information, about Savannah’s history with monsters or the hierarchy of monster hunters or the power struggles within the vampire elite, but not much sense of what it’s like to actually exist in those worlds day to day.
Most egregiously, First Kill fails to craft a truly swoon-worthy romance. Lewis and Hook share an agreeable chemistry that could sustain, say, a slow-burning subplot on a larger teen ensemble drama. But for this story to work, we need to understand Calliope and Juliette’s bond as desire so burning it could torch entire communities, or reshape them in their image. Instead, the characters go from exchanging names to risking their lives for one another within a matter of days, and all the while it remains unclear why they’re so committed to someone they’ve barely swapped more than second-date trivialities with.
In its finale, First Kill quotes from another famous Romeo and Juliet scene, the one in which the friar warns Romeo about violent delights and violent endings. “Love moderately?” Juliette scoffs in a voiceover, scorning the idea of the heart as “something you can pour into a measuring cup and simply stop at the 2/3 line.” The disappointment of First Kill is that the show itself feels like something that can only be loved moderately. It’s a pleasant distraction that goes down easy enough — but it comes nowhere near capturing the all-encompassing allure of a really irresistible binge, let alone of a forbidden first love.
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