Anne Rice's Mayfair Witches Review: This Sterile Southern Gothic Lacks Bite

If there's one thing that author Anne Rice loved writing about, it was toxic, messy relationships. Her novels were soapy, supernatural southern gothics that luxuriated in dark sensuality. Her most famous series of novels was The Vampire Chronicles, which primarily followed the vampire Lestat, the Brat Prince of the undead, as he wreaks havoc on every person he meets — vampire, human, or otherwise. Her other major series was "Lives of the Mayfair Witches," which followed a family of witches in New Orleans who were forever entwined with an evil spirit named Lasher. Eventually, the two series crossed over when the witches appeared in the later Vampire Chronicles novels, setting up a whole Anne Rice universe. 

Fans of Rice's novels are fervent, and AMC seems to be banking on setting up a television universe based on her world. "Interview with the Vampire," based on the first novel in the Vampire Chronicles, has done very well for the network, earning critical praise for its bloody, biting portrayal of Rice's most famous bloodsuckers, Louis and Lestat. Adapting "Interview" seemed like a real challenge, but the series ended up being excellent, bringing joy to Rice fans and newcomers to the franchise alike. Now it's just a matter of seeing if "Mayfair Witches," whose central romance makes Lestat and Louis look well-adjusted, can follow in its footsteps.

Unfortunately, based on the first five episodes of "Mayfair Witches" that I was given, this adaptation just doesn't have any bite.

Getting lost in Rice's most complicated work

The main draw of Rice's "Mayfair Witches" books is the salacious family drama that's one part V.C. Andrews and one part "Days of Our Lives," all filtered through Rice's gory gothic lens. Dr. Rowan Mayfair (Alexandria Daddario) is a brilliant young neurosurgeon who discovers that she's the chosen one in a line of witches who are bound to the spirit Lasher (Jack Huston). Deidre, her adoptive mother, a Mayfair cousin, dies and Rowan finds herself drawn to New Orleans, leaving behind her neat, tidy world for a supernatural nightmare. The Mayfairs are a sprawling dynasty with Haitian and Dutch branches, but they're all witches, bound to Lasher's magic in some way or another. Deidre was kept drugged in order to prevent her from communicating with Lasher, but she eventually manages to avoid taking her medication and retrieves the necklace, summoning him back to the Mayfair house once more. After she dies, it's only a matter of time before Lasher sets his sights on Rowan. 

"Mayfair Witches" operates as a kind of mystery, as Rowan tries to uncover the secrets of her heritage, learn to control the witch power within herself, and figure out who or what the heck Lasher is, but the mysteries are so interwoven and vague that it's ultimately frustrating. There are some fun, shocking moments early on where Rowan accidentally kills people by seeing into their brain and popping arteries like bubble gum, but her reaction to these events (or lack thereof) sets a depressing precedent where moments that should matter just fall flat. 

Hints of potential

The handful of things that do work about "Mayfair Witches" are enough to make me want to finish the season when it's out, because there are hints that the series is just taking its time to really find its way. Rowan only finally becomes compelling toward the end of the fifth episode, doing something other than looking like a deer in headlights. There's also at last a reference to the Talamasca, the secret organization that exists in Rice's world to keep tabs on all of the supernatural beings. The most interesting character, Ciprien (Tongayi Chirisa), is a Talamasca agent with psychic powers who is tasked with following Rowan and reporting on the Mayfairs, and if there's much more of him later in the season, it would be to the show's benefit. Ciprien can see the past of any object (or person) he touches, making him a very effective agent against the supernatural. Chirisa is also giving a great, layered performance that makes him easier to empathize with than anyone else. The rest of the characters feel like pastiches of genteel Southern families from other, wackier shows.

Therein lies the biggest problem with "Mayfair Witches": it refuses to embrace the camp elements of the source material at all, rendering it joyless. "Interview," its television sibling, takes itself deadly serious when it matters, but also leans into the campy, soapy fun baked into the genre. Every time that "Mayfair" feels like it's heading in an interesting direction, it pulls itself back. There's too much restraint and not enough wackiness, especially given just how weird some of the ideas presented really are. 

Let it be as weird as it warrants!

There are some ridiculous ideas presented in "Mayfair Witches," with the family's long line of incest, rape via ghost, and more, but these elements seem to be tampered down in order to try to make the series feel more contemporary, or realistic, and it just takes all of the fun out of things. This is a series where Deidre has freaky ghost sex with Lasher and it makes Rowan get all hot and flustered despite being thousands of miles away, in the sky, on an airplane, but it happens so fast that you're almost left wondering why they included it at all. Lasher himself also feels less threatening and sexy than he should, and his powers are so vague that he's just a confusing menace with a snazzy fashion sense. Maybe Lasher and Rowan will become more interesting once they start interacting more in the back half of the season, but I'm doubtful.

"Mayfair Witches" had me longing for the lush sensuality of "Interview," or even the creepy camp of "American Horror Story: Coven." A series about a family of witches in New Orleans should be as gloriously over-the-top as the city itself, but instead of a spicy jambalaya, the series is about as flavorful as a bowl of plain steamed rice. "Interview with the Vampire" had me prepared to potentially fall in love with the world of the Mayfair witches, but the first five episodes are a real disappointment. 

"Anne Rice's Mayfair Witches" premieres on AMC and AMC+ on January 8, 2023 at 9:00 EST.