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Nina Metz: Why aren't you watching one of the best shows on TV?

Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

The best show on TV right now is AMC’s “Interview with the Vampire” and chances are you’re not watching.

That’s because without a big advertising spend, too many titles fall through the cracks in today’s TV landscape. Especially if the show relies on cable viewers. New episodes air 9 p.m. ET Sundays, but somehow this has become the old-school option in less than a decade. The show is also available on AMC’s streaming platform, which has just 11.5 million subscribers, barely a drop compared to Netflix’s 83 million in North America alone.

There are discounts available for new AMC+ subscribers if you do some sleuthing online (none of which are being aggressively marketed) including a 30-day free trial with the promo code IWTV30SH. I’m not here to shill for AMC, but it looks like you can get a plan for as low as $4.99 a month. That’s cheaper than pretty much any other streaming platform and it’s money well spent for this show alone. Still unconvinced? The pilot episode from Season 1 is currently free on YouTube.

“Interview with the Vampire” would likely reach a wider audience on another streamer, but it has a lot in common with other titles that established the AMC brand. The writing has the wit, confidence and swagger of “Mad Men.” The story arcs have the brutal outlook of “Breaking Bad” and the monster premise of “The Walking Dead.” But it is resolutely its own titillating story — about unreliable narrators, fallible memories and emotions splattered all over the place like a Jackson Pollock painting.

The series is adapted from Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles novels, which begin with a tantalizing premise: One guy interviewing another guy, who claims to be a vampire.

It’s the story of an over-the-top relationship between Lestat de Lioncourt, a French-born vampire with a floridly camp personality, and Louis de Pointe du Lac, the American who Lestat turns into his vampire companion. They have an intense and combustible push-pull energy that ends up ensnaring — destroying? — everyone in their orbit. It’s a story that toggles between the past and the present, the latter featuring Daniel Molloy, who is the doubting journalist. In the show, he has traveled to a sleek, minimalist penthouse in Dubai to conduct the interview with Louis. What he will eventually realize is that combing through the past will blow up everyone’s lives, including his own.

Created by showrunner Rolin Jones, the series differs slightly from the books, but maintains the sensibility of the world Rice conjured. Louis is no longer a white Louisiana plantation owner discovered by Lestat in the 1790s, but a Black New Orleans bordello owner in the 1910s. This allows the show to contemplate all the ways race and racism plays out in New Orleans, but also adds a layer of frisson to the Louis-Lestat power plays. The other major change is that all the coy homoerotic subtext of their relationship is now overtly text. They are lovers locked in one of the most toxic relationships put to screen.

So who is watching? The Season 2 premiere on AMC drew 282,000 viewers in mid-May, and the numbers have dropped each week, down to 185,000 for the episode that aired June 2. Apparently the cable experience is subpar; on social media people have complained about abrupt cuts to commercial. Instead of letting an emotional moment fade to black, there was at least one smash cut to a jaunty Burger King advertisement shilling “BK Melts full of flame-grilled layers!” TV networks figured out how to weave in commercials decades ago without breaking the spell of their shows, it’s baffling that AMC has given this short shrift.

It’s telling that AMC hasn’t sent any email blasts to boast about streaming numbers either, and unfortunately Nielsen, the third-party company that tracks viewer data, doesn’t cover AMC+.

But we’re not completely in the dark. Parrot Analytics compiles something called an audience demand metric, which is based on Google searches, how often people visit a show’s Wikipedia and IMDb pages, audience views of the trailer and other relevant videos on YouTube, pirating (!) as well as social media buzz. The company “tracks every single one of those interactions because we feel it better reflects how the modern consumer is engaging with and interacting with content,” said industry strategist Brandon Katz.

How is “Interview with the Vampire” doing according to these metrics? Between May 12 and May 26, it was around 20 times more in-demand in the U.S. than the average show. According to Katz, “One to seven times more than average is not that impressive. Eight to 12 is pretty good. And then 15, 18, 20-plus level, that’s pretty darn good.”

Let’s put AMC’s limited streaming audience aside for moment. I asked Kristen Warner, a professor at Cornell University’s Department of Performing and Media Arts, why she thinks the show has yet to break through to a bigger audience.

“I think some of it has to do with the fact that when you’re writing male melodrama this way — and it’s not a mobster show like ‘The Sopranos’ — you make a lot of folks uncomfortable. It is unabashedly and unapologetically and unashamedly about feelings,” she said.

But that’s true of all the shows previously mentioned here, from “Mad Men” to “Succession.” A lot of those feelings center around inadequacy, which the characters believe can be mitigated by success in capitalism.

Be it advertising or media domination — in “The Bear,” it’s a restaurant, in “Breaking Bad,” it’s the illegal manufacture of meth — business is the external entity through which all these feelings can be filtered. Maybe the difference is that “Interview with a Vampire” strips all that out. There is no buffer, it’s all feelings.

 

Warner had another observation. “In so many vampire stories, when men bite men, it’s violent. When men bite women, it’s erotic and that’s not by accident. ‘Interview with the Vampire’ is going in a different direction by allowing the thing that’s below the surface to rise and be visible. It’s not afraid to do that. There is no metaphor, it is exactly what you see. They are very clear about what biting each other and sleeping in the same coffin means.”

I was skeptical about the show when it premiered in 2022. Vampire stories don’t interest me. And the 1994 movie adaptation starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt wasn’t a persuasive argument to the contrary. But great television is great television, and nothing is better at the moment.

It’s tonally self-assured and unexpectedly funny. Yes, funny. There are some moments of violence and gore, but the show picks its spots and it’s not scary; I wouldn’t categorize the series as horror. It’s richly made TV — rarely focused on the hunt for dinner but on something far more interesting: the melodrama of vampire existence, with its combination of boredom and lust and tragedy and zingers. I’m baffled there isn’t more buzz around it and I’m not alone in this sentiment. Over at Slate, writer Nadira Goffe has a column making a similar point.

Eric Bogosian, who plays the entertainingly cranky Daniel in the present-day interview scenes, might be the most familiar name in the cast. But viewers may also recognize Jacob Anderson, who was last seen as the stoical warrior Grey Worm in “Game of Thrones.” It was a small role and the show didn’t give him much to do, but here he’s making a real case that when given the right material, the man can act as the wonderfully contradictory mopey-debonair Louis. Matching him melodramatic beat-for-beat is Sam Reid as the zestily seductive Lestat, manipulator extraordinaire.

By all rights, the show should dominate the Emmys the way “Succession” and “The Bear” have — but it won’t be eligible this year. Emmy rules require that six episodes premiere by the end of May to qualify. As of June 2, the season had only reached Episode 4. Filming paused last year because of the Hollywood strikes, so maybe Season 2 just wasn’t ready to be put on the schedule any earlier.

Still, this feels like an unforced error. An Emmy campaign (and potential wins) could have gone a long way towards increasing awareness. Next year, it’s unlikely the show will be top of mind for voters when so many other shows will have premiered in the meantime.

It’s too bad, because Jones, his production designers and cast — including Assad Zaman as Louis’s current vampire paramour, the elegantly dangerous Armand; Delainey Hayles as Claudia, Lestat and Louis’s wayward “child” vampire; and the hilarious menace that is Ben Daniel’s Santiago, a new character this season who throws a wrench into everything — should be featured on actor roundtables and landing cover stories. Anderson and Reid are especially charming in interviews.

The second season takes place in post-World War II Paris, with Louis and Claudia falling in with an all-vampire theater troupe whose grand guignol performances allow the coven to hide in plain sight. (Lestat is temporarily out of commission, with an emphasis on temporarily.) The season also takes us back to 1973 in San Francisco, when Louis and Daniel first met and things went so horribly awry.

One of the more consistent themes of the show is that there’s no such thing as a well-adjusted vampire. They may be undead but are still saddled with messy human psychology. They are all unhappy. They are all hypocrites. They are all betrayers and betrayed. Somehow, so much comedy is threaded through this experience.

There is an entire Anne Rice television universe in the works at AMC. “The Mayfair Witches,” which premiered last year, is objectively terrible. The network announced this week that it has ordered its third Rice series, “The Talamasca,” about a secret society that keeps track of vampires, witches and the like. This is what TV studios do: Churn out new shows based on IP.

AMC executives clearly have a long-term plan. What they haven’t figured out is how to exploit the best show in their arsenal.

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(Nina Metz is a Chicago Tribune critic who covers TV and film.)

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©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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