For eight years, Ian Somerhalder played Damon Salvatore on The Vampire Diaries, the older of two vampire brothers from the Civil War era. Damon was the bad boy with a heart of gold who was quick to anger, quick to screw-up, and had a vengeful streak that only ever dug his grave deeper. In V Wars, Somerhalder plays the much more straightforwardly heroic Dr. Luther Swann, and his vampiric battle is much more scientific than magical, but the lesson between the series remains the same: dealing with vampires sucks.
Based on the series of comic books by Jonathan Maberry, V Wars starts with the discovery of ancient bacterial samples in the Arctic that ends up mutating humans into something more advanced. The new species is faster, stronger, and generally better, but the cost is an insatiable blood lust that forces them to hunt and feed on people. If this all sounds kind of familiar, it’s because it does sound a bit like the Guillermo del Toro-produced The Strain. However, the basis of The Strain wasn’t that the series’ two antagonists were best friends- No, not best friends. Brothers.
“Like a lot of inaugural seasons, V Wars thinks we want to see how the sausage is made, and how we go from our dreary reality to get to the promised vampire war.”
Somerhalder’s Swann is one of the brothers, and Adrian Holmes is the other. Holmes, who typically plays hard-boiled cops in shows like Arrow or 19-2, has the stature and intensity, as well as more than a little machismo, to play a convincing leader of an insurgent vampire rebellion. His Michael Fayne is Swann‘s best friend, who returns from the Arctic with the right genetics to become “patient zero” of the Bloods, the nickname the new generation of vampires gives themselves.
Like TheStrain, VWars is about the government reaction to a vampire outbreak, and how it effects an expansive cast of characters caught within in the emergency, but The Strain was a gothic blockbuster obsessed with big action, and creature effects, as well as an expansive mythology of its characters both in the past and the present. VWars, by comparison, is more quaint. It has big questions, like, how would society react to the rapid evolution of a new species in our midst? And, how would that species govern itself and try to maintain some sense of humanity as it tries to answer its collective hunger?
Those are interesting questions, and a lot of great genre TV has been built on the idea of exploring them. There are times that VWars reminds me of The 4400, a sci-fi series from the mid-2000s about people abducted over a 50-year period and returned to the present with super-powers. The 4400 was really smart in the way it blended societal issues, with multifaceted storylines, and small character pieces, which is a tough needle to thread, and VWars shows just how tough it is.
Where the first season of the show works best is when it focuses on Fayne‘s attempt to build a vampire community, or when Swann is forced out into the field to confront the terror he’s accidentally helped unleash. Perhaps the best episode of the season is “Cold Cold Ground” where Swann takes part in a raid of a vampire house to get some biological samples to help his research. Not only must Swann recon with the increasing brutality of the soldiers he works with, but he’s forced to engage in that brutality himself in a kill-or-be-killed scenario. The tension was good, and director Kaare Andrews staged the action very well.
While “Cold Cold Ground” almost literally makes one stand up and take notice, there was a lot of time that the series let’s you only be passively engaged with it. The problem is that there’s too much story for a 10-episode season, and so much of it is fairly divorced from the main narrative. There’s a whole subplot about a group of bikers that become an execution squad of vampire killers that the show would have been fine without, and it would have been fine without Swann‘s problematic ex-wife played by Nikki Reed, who seems to be there because someone seemed to think having a crazy ex gave the main character more depth.
Another character the show has issues with is Kaylee Vo played by Jacky Lai, who’s supposed to be a journalist, but her platform is more of a cross between Info Wars and TMZ. Vo is a chaos bomb, and more than a bit of a cliche as she screws, or screws over, anyone to get the story even if it’s half right. She’s a smut peddler, and why the other characters seem to trust her more as the series progresses is a mystery. Another cliche is the “Department of National Security,” who’s malevolence and paranoia is straight out of The X-Files, they even have their own Smoking Man.
Character is where you find the fun in V Wars. Peter Outerbridge (The Umbrella Academy, The Expanse) plays government agent Calix Niklos, who couldn’t sound more like a bad guy if he was called “Dr. Evil.” Although there’s always a raging suspicion that Niklos is not on Swann‘s side in anything, he so smoothly sells the evil of the DNS that you almost hope he is. Michael Greyeyes as FBI Agent Jimmy Saint adds some great moments of humour with his cynical detachment, and is often a great sideman on adventures with Somerhalder. If there’s one thing that V Wars lacks (and really needs) it’s someone steady for it’s lead to bounce off of.
The show could have used some more humour, and it could have used more Laura Vandervoort. A veteran of numerous genre series including Smallville, V, and Bitten, Vandervoort knows how to stand out with a light touch, and for some reason, it’s her character that gets the most personal stories. Mila becomes a vampire early on, and she struggles the hardest to not give into her blood lust. She has to make a path for herself between the solidifying factions, and there was at least one heart-breaking scene that would have been made better if Mila had gotten more of a spotlight through the whole of the series.
“Character is where you find the fun in V Wars […but it] lacks (and really needs) it’s someone steady for it’s lead to bounce off of.“
It’s to the credit of V Wars that it lays out enough in terms of characters, idea, and themes that you can finish it’s 10-episode run and not feel disappointed. Indeed, the last scene proposes an interesting direction, not to mention an interesting new alliance, for season two, and by the time you get to the end, you might feel for the first time a real eagerness to see what comes next. Like a lot of inaugural seasons, V Wars thinks we want to see how the sausage is made, and how we go from our dreary reality to get to the promised vampire war. We don’t, but since the stage is now set, it’s probably worth seeing what else this thing can do.
V Wars is currently streaming on Netflix for your blood lust and viewing enjoyment. Let us know what you thought of the series on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club.