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AMC’s Immortal Universe Isn’t Quite Invincible

Interview With the Vampire’ got the Anne Rice expanded universe off to a roaring start, but its follow-up series, ‘Mayfair Witches,’ suggests consistency might be an issue

AMC/Ringer illustration

There are few authors as deserving of an afterlife as Anne Rice. Decades before the Twilight and True Blood craze of the 2000s, the writer helped popularize the very idea that death could be the beginning, not the end, of one’s journey. Starting with Interview with the Vampire in 1976, Rice published 13 novels collectively known as The Vampire Chronicles—a lurid, macabre, romantic saga of immortality as a double-edged sword. Over the years, Rice would expand her repertoire while remaining rooted in her native New Orleans. In the 1990s, Rice released Lives of the Mayfair Witches, a trilogy that introduced covens and demons to her supernatural world. Inevitably, werewolves then joined the paranormal party.

Rice passed away in 2021, at age 80. Fittingly, though, her work is in the midst of a revival—or, as one of her characters might put it, a resurrection. Interview with the Vampire became a hit movie in 1994, but Rice’s work has otherwise gone without much mainstream adaptation. (The 2002 follow-up Queen of the Damned was less successful, though it did give us Aaliyah as the ancestress of all vampires.) That began to change last year, when AMC premiered what may be recent TV’s most pleasant surprise: a new take on Interview with the Vampire, one that substantially adjusts Rice’s original text while preserving its seductive, gothic tone.

This Interview was renewed for a Season 2 before it even premiered, but was never meant to stand alone. Back in 2016, Rice declared her intention to bring her most iconic work to the small screen: “It is, more than ever, abundantly clear that television is where the vampires belong,” she wrote on Facebook. (Rice had previously developed a potential movie remake of Interview with the Vampire.) In the half decade between this statement and Interview’s TV arrival, the project passed between platforms, studios, and prospective showrunners; at one point, Hannibal’s Bryan Fuller was attached. But in 2020, AMC unveiled its master plan. Not only would the network revive and reimagine Interview with the Vampire—but it had also acquired the rights to a whopping 18 Rice titles, including the entirety of The Vampire Chronicles and Lives of the Mayfair Witches. Dubbed the Immortal Universe, this sprawling expanse of IP is meant for more than just one show. Its second installment, Mayfair Witches, hits the air this Sunday.

The past year has not been kind to most of the media business, but especially AMC, a company now struggling with executive turnover, impending layoffs, and the recent conclusion of The Walking Dead, its blockbuster tentpole for more than a decade. The Rice deal represents a much-needed silver lining: a ready-made franchise with millions of fans and a deep well of stories to mine. A critical darling and popular hit, Interview with the Vampire got the Immortal Universe off to a roaring start, including a pit stop in the actual Roaring Twenties. The only problem, Mayfair Witches suggests, is consistency. This isn’t the first attempt at horror’s answer to the MCU, but the ghost of Universal’s Dark Universe can tell you it’s easier announced than executed.

First, the highs: Under the vision of playwright Rolin Jones, Interview with the Vampire updates the story of the vampire Louis (Jacob Anderson) and his maker Lestat (Sam Reid). Their initial encounters in turn-of-the-century New Orleans are a seduction in every sense of the term, making the subtext of this and every vampire story into steamy, explicitly queer text. It’s the first of the relationship’s many new dimensions. Rice’s Louis was a plantation owner, a member of Louisiana’s antebellum elite. This Louis is a Black businessman, a fact that adds to vampirism’s appeal and enhances its tragedy. With Louis’s transformation comes freedom and power, though not enough to transcend the social structures he still operates within.

Identity can be an easy shortcut to relevance. When faced with the question of how to update a movie or show for a more contemporary audience, the easiest answer is to align it with modern standards of representation, which provide both aesthetic difference and a moral halo. (Hence how a silly blockbuster like 2016’s Ghostbusters became a solemn duty.) But Interview with the Vampire is neither self-righteous nor superficial. Vampires have long been an imperfect allegory for marginalized groups both racial and sexual; True Blood began with its protagonists “coming out of the coffin.” By making itself more literal, Interview can sink its fangs into a fresh take on alienation, isolation, and long-term perspective—all cornerstones of the (imagined) vampire experience.

For its framing device, Interview with the Vampire pairs Louis with Daniel Molloy (Eric Bogosian), a cynical journalist summoned to a palatial penthouse in Dubai. As our entry into Louis’s story, Daniel injects a dry and skeptical sense of humor. When Louis gets carried away recounting an awkward reunion with his family, including a newborn nephew, Daniel keeps interrupting with a crucial question: “Did you eat the baby?” The show’s additions are as much tonal as textual. Whenever Louis—and by extension, Interview with the Vampire—borders on maudlin, he’s balanced out by wry cynicism (from Daniel) or campy flair (from Lestat). Some characters, like Louis and Lestat’s adopted daughter Claudia (Bailey Bass), contain every extreme. There’s the obvious comedy of two vampires struggling to co-parent a bloodthirsty teen, plus the real pathos of a child caught in the crosshairs of what we come to see is an abusive, codependent bond.

By comparison, Mayfair Witches has a more limited range. Alexandra Daddario plays Rowan, a San Francisco neurosurgeon who learns she’s the latest “designee” of the Mayfair family, a wealthy and powerful line of New Orleans matriarchs. (Rowan’s Bay Area roots are a nod to Rice’s own time in the region; Daniel and Louis first met there back in the 1970s, a wink at the original film and book.) The sudden inheritance introduces the adopted Rowan to her blood relatives, but also to Lasher (Jack Huston), a mysterious, immortal being who made a Faustian bargain with the Mayfairs sometime in the distant past. Rowan finds herself torn between Lasher and Ciprien Grieve (Tongayi Chirisa), a well-meaning member of a secret society that works to supervise the supernatural.

This love triangle is a clear attempt to invoke the eroticism that runs throughout Rice’s work, including the latest Interview. (Rice also dabbled in actual erotica, initially published under a pen name.) But in practice, Mayfair Witches lacks spark. Huston feels miscast, or at least unable to project the menace, danger, and irresistible pull of a quasi-Satanic figure. Meanwhile, the mythology around the Mayfairs feels fuzzy and inconsistent through the five episodes provided to critics. Rowan has powers that trace back to Lasher, but Ciprien has his own abilities of unclear origin; Lasher wants Rowan to help unleash his full potential, but seems perfectly capable of causing havoc on his own. It’s all much less legible than nightwalkers blessed with eternal youth and a taste for fine reds.

Such haziness would be easier to accept if Mayfair Witches seemed to take itself less seriously. The sole performance on Interview’s proudly ludicrous wavelength belongs to Real Househusband Harry Hamlin, going full Foghorn Leghorn as Rowan’s long-lost uncle Cortland. The rest of the show plays it straight, a departure not just from Interview with the Vampire but other, more whimsical portrayals of witchcraft in pop culture. (Think of Kathryn Hahn hamming it up as Agatha Harkness on WandaVision.) Mayfair Witches sticks to a relatively staid script of witchcraft as feminist metaphor, then forgets to have much fun.

The initial Mayfair trilogy was particularly personal to Rice, who based the family home on her own stately manse in the Big Easy’s famous Garden District. It’s a logical cornerstone for the nascent Immortal Universe, and a potentially critical weak spot. Characters cross over between the witch and vampire sagas on the page, and presumably will on the screen if AMC realizes its vision. That makes discrepancies in quality more than just a disappointment for fans. Rice’s imagination is more than enough to sustain the kind of interconnected epic we’ve come to expect from entertainment. The question is if AMC’s would-be universe can prove as immortal as its inspiration.