'Midnight, Texas': TV Review

'Happy, Texas' had more subtext.
7/24/2017

If you were looking for a new 'True Blood' — only without the sex, swearing, extreme gore and socially relevant subtext — NBC has you covered.

A little more than a decade ago, before HBO Go and streaming supremacy, syndication was still king and everybody made a huge deal that HBO's The Sopranos was going to re-air on A&E. Episodes were stripped of extreme violence and sexuality. The colorful language was overdubbed or muted. Hourlong episodes had to be trimmed to 44-minute blocks. It was a crock, but at least you still had James Gandolfini and Edie Falco.

Viewers who loved A&E's edited Sopranos — plausibly, there are a few — will probably get a real kick out of NBC's Midnight, Texas. Also based on a book series by Charlaine Harris, Midnight, Texas is True Blood — only without the sex, gore and swearing. Of course it's also missing the rich vein of subtext, the demented and subversive undertones and a cast of the sort of A-list actors and guest stars who can be wooed by HBO's prestige, but not for an NBC summer drama. It's a very poor man's True Blood, a sentiment I convey as a critic who actually enjoyed True Blood for, at the most, one season out of its seven-season run. Enough fans kept loving the tawdry soapiness and horror tropes of True Blood even when the show stunk, and Midnight, Texas will probably satisfy some of those basic cravings.

Francois Arnaud stars as the hilariously named Manfred Bernardo, a psychic from a long line of gypsy fortune tellers. (True Blood was the sort of show that might tell you that "gypsy" was a racial slur and try to reclaim the specificity of the Romani people. Midnight, Texas is not.) On the run from unseen debt collectors, Manfred follows his dead grandmother's advice and moves to Midnight, a small Texas town populated by outsiders and supernatural types including vampire Lemuel (Peter Mensah), witch Fiji (Parisa Fitz-Henley), full-moon-fearing Rev. Emilio (Yul Vazquez) and several seemingly mortal familiars like hilariously named pawn shop owner Bobo Winthrop (Dylan Bruce), gun-toting Olivia (Arielle Kebbel) and Creek (Sarah Ramos), the winsome lass who soon catches Manfred's eye.

Midnight, it quickly turns out, is more than just a safe-haven for outsiders. It's also a town on a Buffy-esque Hellmouth, and Manfred's arrival is part of a prophesy suggesting nothing less than the eventual rise of Satan and all associated ramifications. There's also a talking cat.

Adapted for NBC by Monica Owusu-Breen, the early episodes of Midnight, Texas are mostly soft-peddling the bigger ramifications of Manfred's arrival and instead concentrating on the procedural ramifications of being in a town that's a supernatural magnet. In duller moments, Midnight is a draw for sexy succubi and Charlaine Harris-approved horror mad libs like a were-tiger. At its best, the lure attracts scenery-chewing guest stars like Evan Jones as a bald, white supremacist biker gang leader, Zahn McClarnon as head of a vampire gang and Christopher Heyerdahl as a scary guy with dark powers and no associated gang.

You welcome the eccentrics coming in from the outside because the core of Midnight, Texas is very, very bland. On pure charisma alone, Mensah is the cast's standout and often elevates frequent scene partner Kebbel with him. You can forget Fiji and Bobo are part of the show at all when they're absent, which allowed me to giggle anew every time anybody mentioned their names, which otherwise isn't ideal since they're important to the series. Vazquez and Jason Lewis, nearly unrecognizable with long hair, are among several castmembers who have decided the dominant response to living in Midnight is an unvarying concerned expression. There's a slight sweetness to the halting romance between Manfred and Creek, but Ramos' role is too underwritten and Arnaud is too flat for anything more than that to read.

Arnaud is like a less dynamic version of Dominic Cooper from Preacher, and Dominic Cooper is the least dynamic part of Preacher. With its Southwestern settings and occasional nods to theology, Midnight, Texas also gets to play as a sanitized and hollow take on Preacher or American Gods. NBC can definitely use my quote: "It's like the less edgy distant cousin of a lot of shows you love."

Alan Ball used to frequently deny that he was using individual things on True Blood as metaphors for whatever was happening in the real world at the moment, but I suspected that was to enhance the show's long-term universality, since there will always be outsiders and "otherness" can always be used to represent something. It's odd and frustrating, then, that otherness in Midnight, Texas is pretty basic and literal. These people have gifts and curses, so they hang out with each other for safety. There's basically no subtext, even when a Native American actor and a Ghanaian-British actor are depicting their characters' experiences with vampirism in 19th century America. You have to work hard to drain some of these potent images of all deeper meaning, but Midnight, Texas succeeds.

Pilot helmer Niels Arden Oplev and subsequent directors at least keep the show moving at a fast clip, but the forward rush comes at the expense of any real scares or erotic heat. This is an NBC show, after all.

Little touches of character-driven darkness toward the end of the five episodes I watched maybe hinted at better things ahead for the show. I just don't see the pieces in place at the center of the cast or in the creative aspirations for Midnight, Texas to be anything more than a PG-rated version of what ought to be a decadent and overblown summer guilty pleasure.

Cast: François Arnaud, Dylan Bruce, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Arielle Kebbel, Jason Lewis, Sarah Ramos, Peter Mensah, Yul Vazquez
Creator: Monica Owusu-Breen, from the book by Charlaine Harris
Premieres: Monday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)

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