'A Discovery of Witches': TV Review

Matthew Goode flairs his nostrils and Lindsay Duncan eats a fox.
1/17/2019

Deborah Harkness' best-seller about vampires, witches and academic research into the field of alchemy comes to Sundance Now and Shudder with its interspecies swooning intact.

Early in the premiere of Sundance Now and Shudder's adaptation of Deborah Harkness' A Discovery of Witches, main character Diana Bishop gives a lecture on alchemy in front of an enraptured room of Oxford academics. As she is a visiting lecturer of some repute, the scene is designed to show her intelligence and her expertise and to introduce the alchemical fascination that's central to Harkness' books.

Except that for purposes of TV, A Discovery of Witches almost couldn't care less. The lecture is reduced to a montage, a series of half-observations that add up to nothing. Its purpose is sheer expediency, something that series adapter Kate Brooke knows audiences will expect on a fundamental level, but not one that the show wants to deal with on a utilitarian level.

In hasty fashion, it points to everything good and bad about the TV adaptation of A Discovery of Witches, which proves both better and worse than Harkness' book, already a piece of flawed supernatural romance occupying the breathless space somewhere between Twilight and Outlander.

Teresa Palmer plays Diana, an American scientific historian doing research in Oxford. Diana is also a witch, the reluctant heir to a legacy dating back to Salem and beyond. Other than performing menial tasks, Diana avoids using her magic, or at least she thinks she does. Working in the Bodleian Library one day, Diana discovers a previously unrecorded manuscript — drink every time a character says "Ashmole 782" and you will die — that may be tied to her work. It may be tied to far greater things, though. Soon, other mystical creatures begin to take an interest, including Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode), an ancient vampire and professor of biochemistry. Matthew believes that Ashmole 782 may be the famous Book of Life, a text documenting the origins of witches, vampires and daemons, a tome that could offer secrets essential to all species.

Diana doesn't want anything to do with Matthew. He's a vampire. But he's also dreamy as heck, especially when he starts sniffing her. Matthew begins to look even better in comparison to ultra-ominous witch Peter Knox (Owen Teale), part of the shady Congregation, a Venice-based group taxed with maintaining balance between creatures and humans. Very quickly, Diana's life is in danger, as is her virtue since things with Matthew begin to get all hot-and-heavy in ways that may threaten that exact balance the Congregation is meant to keep. Oh, and Diana is also about to discover that that magic she's been keeping at bay is about to start exploding out of her every orifice. Like... literally!

There's an audience for tales of this nature. I doubt it's the audience that watches Shudder, since Discovery of Witches isn't even the slightest bit scary. And is it the Sundance Now audience? I'm not sure I fully grasp the Sundance Now brand. Qualitatively, the series also occupies that space between Twilight and Outlander.

Going back to that early lecture scene and the task of adapting entrusted to Brooke, whose credits include Mr. Selfridge and The Forsyte Saga.

On the page, Diana is a tough character. I don't love the online-friendly pejorative "Mary Sue," referring to generally female characters of disproportionate and unexplained proficiency, but Diana is dangerously close. She isn't just a witch. She is, despite absolute resistance to her powers, eventually the best darn witch in the world. The last half of the book is at least 10 percent characters telling Diana, "I didn't know you could do that!" and her replying "I didn't know either!" But what Diana has going for her is basically two things: She's the primary narrator of the book, so she almost always has a voice and perspective that steer the story, and she's brainy in ways that are frequently coming in handy and frequently astounding everybody around her.

In the series, Brooke has taken the focal perspective away. Matthew now gets the introductory voiceover that opens each episode and we're never allowed inside Diana's head for a second. Also, her alchemical training is virtually meaningless. Until her loins take over, it's work that drives both Diana and the narrative through much of the book. Here, she's really got nothing. I doubt viewers are going to suffer, but Palmer does. Diana has no voice and she's barely a character other than staring at Matthew first in terror, then in curiosity and then in boundless love. Throw in an accent that waxes and wanes with Diana's emotions and it's really not a decisive performance.

It becomes much more Goode's series and, if we're being perfectly honest, it's probably the better for it and surely the more satisfying to its target audience. In this series, vampires are ever flaring their nostrils at delectable passing human morsels, and Goode does it like a champ. He also drinks a lot of wine, albeit without Matthew Rhys. That's a The Wine Show joke. The series has Matthew drinking a lot of wine because it's something he does non-stop in the book. I can only assume this is meant as a burn on Bram "I Never Drink… Wine" Stoker and his version of vampirism.

If making Diana even more of a Mary Sue than she was on the page is a bad adaptive choice — don't get me started on Diana as a character only being activated by the sexual ritual known blushingly as "bundling" — Brooke smartly recognizes the dramatic structural flaws of Harkness' book, in which the first half alternates between Diana and Matthew going for tea, Diana doing her research, Matthew stalking Diana creepily and sometimes, for no reason, supernatural creature yoga. There are almost no other characters.

Brooke wisely pushes up the presence and prominence of supporting characters like Matthew's "son" Marcus (a very good Edward Bluemel), tormented Finnish witch Satu (a chilling Malin Buska), obsessive vampire Juliette (visually striking Elarica Johnson) and research-loving daemons Nathaniel (Daniel Ezra, sans All-American accent) and Sophie (Aisling Loftus). Some of these characters pop up for one or two scenes late in the book, with no context or value. Here they're actual characters. They aren't always successfully introduced, mind you. I defy anybody who hasn't read the book to watch the series and tell me what a "daemon" even is, much less what their powers might or might not be.

Teale, Castle Black dickhead Ser Alliser Thorne to Game of Thrones fans, benefits particularly from Knox's expanded screen time, giving probably the series' best performance. His closest rival is Lindsay Duncan as Matthew's vampire mama Ysabeau, who hasn't been given an expanded story, but does get to attack and eat a fox onscreen, making Discovery of Witches the first show of the Peak TV era to feature Tony winner Duncan, CBE, attacking and eating a fox.

Brooke also takes the series to Venice, not a part of the first book, and Venice looks spectacular. In fact, even if you aren't at all interested in forbidden supernatural romance, the directors — Juan Carlos Medina, Alice Troughton and Sarah Walker — make gorgeous use of filming locations in Oxford and Venice and Scotland. You might giggle hysterically at some of the limitedly realized supernatural stuff — Goode running in accelerated motion after a CGI stag is empirically hilarious and I defy anybody to tell me otherwise — and still enjoy the series as a photogenic travelogue. The shifting of locations and ability to tell stories in multiple locations makes the series feel less landlocked.

A Discovery of Witches picks up as it goes along through eight episodes. There's torture and foreplay and increasingly more magic. Only the finale is a bit of an anti-climax, setting the tables for two additional already ordered seasons, but I think the cliffhanger at the end of the finale will raise enough questions to keep viewers who make it that far curious.

Cast: Teresa Palmer, Matthew Goode, Edward Bluemel, Louise Brealey, Malin Buska, Aiysha Hart, Owen Teale Alex Kingston, Valarie Pettiford, Trevor Eve, Lindsay Duncan
Creator: Kate Brooke, adapted from the book by Deborah Harkness
Premieres: Thursday (Sundance Now and Shudder)