Seventeen years ago, a television first premiered on the young FOX network: a prime time dramatic series based on the popular (and controversial) role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade. Produced by Aaron Spelling, it debuted to fanfare and uncertain expectations. The plot centered around the Kindred of San Francisco, a secret society of vampires with a neo-feudal structure, and the romances and intrigues of Prince Julian Luna and his Primogen council of advisers from the various clans.
It failed after eight episodes and was quickly forgotten.
Today, players of the Vampire role-playing game look back on Kindred: The Embraced with a mixture of embarrassment, amusement, and bitterness. The show made a few critical mistakes, mostly in an attempt to attract mainstream audiences rather than build from the strength of its inherent fanbase. Like The X-Files, I believe that if the show had been approached with the right attitude, Kindred might have also been able to grow from cult show to mainstream success. However, given the current popularity of True Blood, Vampire Diaries, and vampire movies and novels, I believe that this idea could find a second life if attempted again today.
Here’s how I would do it:
First, I would embrace (pun intended) the mythology and setting created by White Wolf rather than run away from it. Fans of the game want to see the gothic-punk world of the game brought to life and even new viewers are more likely to be interested by a show that has a real sense of identity that differentiates it from all the other shows. Think of movies like Tim Burton’s Batman, Batman Returns, and Sweeny Todd as well as The Crow, movies that positively dripped with atmosphere. Granted, on a TV budget, we might not be able to get that extreme, but it’s something to shoot for.
In order to help in that regard, I’d move the location from San Francisco to a gritty, urban, industrial city like Chicago or Detroit. Those cities have a vibe to them that match the themes of class disparity, urban decay, and corruption that form such a central point of the World of Darkness. Keep the Camarilla and mention the Sabbat as a boogeyman throughout the first season to build up anticipation. Explain the various elements as needed, deepening the layers and drawing the viewers further into the world of the characters episode by episode. Furthermore, keep the vampires in the dark with none of the lame excuses for day shooting the original had. Kindred exist on the fringes of society, on the outside looking in, so let’s keep it that way.
However, such a series really lives or dies by its characters, so that’s what I’m going to use the majority of this article to discuss.
Prince Julian Luna: Julian needs to be a morally complex figure in this new iteration, in keeping with the modern anti-heroes from cable series that grab viewer’s attention. Casting someone like Adrian Pasdar not only brings to mind his iconic characters from Profit and Heroes, it also gives you a leading man who is handsome, charismatic, and dangerous. Julian needs to be transformed from an idealistic do-gooder into a strong, capable leader who tries to make the best of an imperfect world, but is willing to accomplish his goals with ruthless manipulation and murder. The Ventrue clan is heavy with tradition and old-fashioned thinking, while Julian is a bit of a Young Turk, so he’s got potential enemies everywhere and knows it. He rules with a mixture of fear, fairness, and utility. By monopolizing the highest levels of the city government, the local media, and the bureaucratic structure, he’s made himself indispensable to the maintenance of the Masquerade while giving himself a mighty hammer to bring down on those who cross him.
Toreador Primogen/Harpy Lily Langtry: In the original series, Lily was probably the most successful character because she was the typical Aaron Spelling woman, desperately clinging to Julian and playing catty games. I’d like to see Lily embody both the rose and thorns of the Toreador clan by being a power in her own right. As Harpy, Lily would set the social standard of who’s popular and who’s not, but she also controls the gossip mill, giving her the ability to build or destroy reputations with ease. Rather than being Julian’s lover, let’s make her Julian’s rival. She believes she should be prince (or at least the power behind the prince), but in public she is Julian’s biggest supporter. She’s content to build her powerbase and chip away at Julian’s support until her time comes, but she’s happy to compromise or support Julian’s plans when they benefit her. Charisma Carpenter has proven to me that she can handle drama, comedy, action, and any other aspect that the character would call for, plus her Buffy/Angel cred means a lot in the vampire fan community.
Nosferatu Primogen/Sheriff Daedalus: Julian’s enforcer and spymaster, Daedalus was one of the original show’s most interesting and layered characters. I want to keep that, but make it less obvious. I want Daedalus to wear his monstrosity for the world to see, for him to embody fear, and to let no one but his fellow Nosferatu see the artistic and caring soul that he guards. Lance Henriksen is such a fantastic actor, and one with such physical presence and intensity, that no one will have a problem fearing him. He can hide himself behind an illusory mask when appropriate, but let’s make him a real Nosferatu: hideous and monstrous. His loyalty should be to the office of prince, not to Julian personally, which could provide interesting conflicts of interest on occasion. His rivalry with and hatred for Lily should be intense and dangerous.
Gangrel Primogen Cash: The clan of the beast needs to be represented as more than gypsy bikers, so let’s have some fun here. I say let’s make Cash a woman to liven up the gender balance and cast a gorgeous, athletic woman like Zuleika Robinson in the role. Let her be wild, uninhibited, dangerous … and Julian’s secret lover. A sordid affair of passion that would be embarrassing to Julian’s blue blood image as well as Cash’s reputation among her scattered clan, but makes Cash fiercely protective of him. A true case of opposites attracting, there are numerous places for such a relationship to go and lots of plots for it to complicate.
Ventrue Primogen Archon Rae: First of all, I’d change his name, since Archon is a position in the Camarilla society that might be needed. I liked Archon in the series, who was Julian’s sire/mentor and the former prince with a dark past. I’d go with that, but deepen it. Archon is Julian’s sire, but he’s also a Ventrue prince who was forced to abdicate his throne in favor of his own “son.” That’s got to sting a bit. If Julian is the modern, practical Ventrue then let’s have Archon represent the old school: aristocratic, autocratic, and firmly convinced that the traditional ways are still the best. He controls various banks and brokerage houses through puppets and has ties with all the city’s old money families. David Warner is a fantastic character actor who excels at smooth, cultured villains; which is not to say that Archon should actually be a villain, but it’s easy to perceive him that way. Which is a wonderful way to keep viewers guessing whether his advice to Julian is really meant to help him or leave him vulnerable to an internal coup.
Brujah Primogen Eddie Fiori: In the original series, Eddie Fiori was the paper tiger that Julian got to smack around in order to make him look tough. I see Eddie as an old fashioned mobster who clawed his way up from the streets, but who has become too preoccupied with maintaining his position to really do right by his clan. Still, he’s nobody to laugh at, considering that his clan controls the city’s waterfronts, organized crime, corrupt police, gambling, and the drug trade. What he lacks in political clout, he makes up for in human influence. Someone like Clancy Brown or Eric Roberts could really make such a short-term role a lot of fun. Have him team up with Lily in an attempted coup that, though it fails, still comes close enough to shake the city to its core.
Brujah Whip Cameron: Cameron was a terrific character who appeared in the final episode of the original show, played by Titus Welliver, and embodied what a Brujah Primogen should have been from the beginning. For fun, I’d bring back Kindred alumni Erik King of Dexter fame to play Eddie Fiori’s enforcer-turned-replacement. A modern Brujah who embodies both the rebel spirit and the desire for social justice of the Brujah clan, Cameron changes the face of the Brujah clan and tries to work to better the life of the city’s human inhabitants. Tough, determined, and heavily-connected, he becomes the dark horse on the Primogen council who could bolster whoever he chooses to ally with.
Editor in Chief Caitlin Byrne: Caitlin was one of those annoying characters from the original show that seemed thrown in just to give Julian something (and someone) to do. In my version, Caitlin is the editor-in-chief of the city’s largest newspaper (which also controls the local TV affiliate) and is Julian’s Ghoul. Ghouls weren’t really dealt with in the original series and this is an area ripe for drama. Promised eternal youth and other benefits from drinking Julian’s blood, Caitlin flexes her power on Julian’s behalf whenever he needs a news story covered up or spun. But Caitlin wants to be more than Julian’s lackey and dreams of being Embraced by him, to the point where she starts going above and beyond her orders to serve and prove her indispensability. Played by a actress like Eliza Dushku, you can imagine how interesting and complex Caitlin’s “psycho girlfriend” plots could become.
Lt. Frank Kohanek: One of the series’ lamest characters was C. Thomas Howell’s police detective who was effectively upstaged in every episode by the Kindred around him. Let’s not bother with this weak and over-done plot and use Frank as Eddie Fiori’s connection in the police, the Lieutenant of the Homicide unit. Old, corrupt, and jaded, this Kohanek is another seeming pawn in the Kindred game who could prove troublesome if he decided to. Whether he’s bought by money or blood, he wants more: more respect, more money, more power. What if he decides to break with the Brujah after Eddie’s death and auction his services off to the highest Kindred bidder after stashing some “insurance” to make sure he stays alive? Keith Szarabajka would be perfect for this kind of role.
Tremere Primogen/Seneschal: Yes, you read that right! One of the major ways that I would improve the new series is by bringing all the clans in for their due. Trying to use the Brujah as the resident “bad guys” on the show was short-sighted and doomed to fail. Why bother when you’ve got such wonderful ready-made antagonists as the Tremere? The clan of scholars and sorcerers is the perfect thing when you need a character that no one likes, but no one can do without. Making the Tremere Primogen the Seneschal is brilliant strategy by Julian, since it places the Tremere in charge (something no one wants) should anything happen to him. Nobody does creepy, condescending, and slyly sycophantic like Jeffrey Combs, so I’d let him play it to the hilt. Half Merlin and half Grima Wormtongue, the Tremere Seneschal can be antagonistic one episode and helpful the next, all while keeping his true intentions a mystery.
Malkavian Primogen: The most often misunderstood clan in Vampire: The Masquerade is the mad Malkavians, so let’s set a good example, shall we? When I think of powerful portrayals of emotionally raw madness, I think of actor Brad Dourif. He can be creepy, he can be warm and ingratiating, he can be dangerously psychotic, and he can bring you to tears (just watch the first season finale of Deadwood). The Malkavian Primogen is a mad prophet, a tortured Cassandra who rarely ventures away from the tending of his clanmates, who revere him as a messiah. When he chooses to attend a council session, it is usually with news of a vision or to seek redress for the abuse of a clan-member or some innocent denizen of the city. Often his visions are confusing or misleading and, once in a while, he just likes to watch everyone jump. For some reason, I see a wary friendship between him and Daedalus and I think that would be incredibly fun to watch.
Lastly, I’d make sure to give each character a counter-part (or several) in their clans to flesh things out. A genuine artist Toreador to make trouble for posuer Lily on occasion–maybe he/she is the Keeper of Elysium. A feral Gangrel friend for Cash to aid and perhaps see glimpses of her own tragic future in. A Ventrue up-and-comer swaying between supporting Julian and Archon behind closed doors and possibly playing both sides. A vain human Embraced as punishment by a Nosferatu that Daedalus tries to educate in the clan’s ways, perhaps with tragic results. What if some other clan demands Julian give them Caitlin to Embrace in repayment for a debt?
Well, I think that’s enough to spark some ideas! If anyone reading this actually has the power to resurrect a show like Kindred: The Embraced, then do so! I give permission for any of these ideas to be used, just please give us Vampire fans a show we can finally be proud of!