First Kill Review: The Sapphic Vampire Series Resurrects The Highs And Lows Of Soapy Paranormal Romance

The first episode of "First Kill" hits like a wave of nostalgia: totally normal, regular girl Juliette Fairmont (Sarah Catherine Hook) is monologuing about the woes of not fitting in at school and cycling through potential outfits while a moody indie-pop song winds up in the background. Because she's inexplicably rich, she takes all her teenage turmoil down a grand staircase and into the kitchen of her family's mansion to face her perfect parents and bombshell sister, making it abundantly clear that in all spaces, she is the odd one out. Later, she'll share a foundational awkward girl moment with her glamorous sister, Elinor (​​Gracie Dzienny): after nearly wearing a dull sweater and jeans to a party, she's rescued by Elinor's makeup and fashion expertise. While dusting blush across her younger sister's face, Elinor pauses to answer a question: "What was it like? Your first?" She gets sentimental, recounting the beautiful boy from her past — it would be sweet, but Elinor isn't describing her first boyfriend nor her first kiss. This is the story of the first person she killed, after sinking her fangs into his neck. Indeed, "First Kill" has all the cliches of a YA high school drama, but with the bloody twist of supernatural beings.

If you cut your teeth on the soapy chaos of "The Vampire Diaries," hold "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" near and dear, or if you sacrificed years to addictive messes like "Supernatural," "Teen Wolf" or "Shadowhunters," then "First Kill" will be right up your alley. And if you've been down those roads before, you know exactly what mess you're getting yourself into. Right down to the constant music cues that send you reaching for Shazam, the moody internal monologues and the fog-machine fueled atmospheres, "First Kill" is a throwback to the paranormal YA that spent years making the grand leap from page to screen, following teens embroiled in dangerous love affairs despite the star-crossed nature of their secret supernatural identities.

In this case, our Romeo and Juliet stand-ins couldn't be more doomed: Juliette comes from a long line of proud Legacy vampires, happy to drain innocent humans for the sake of survival. And she makes the unfortunate mistake of falling for Calliope Burns (Imani Lewis), a budding monster-slayer who's been trained to hunt and kill vampires since she could walk. It's less than ideal for them — but love so often is. And more importantly, it's the perfect set-up for a forbidden love story that must defy the odds.

Star-crossed lovers strike again

When "First Kill" operates at its simplest form (aka its best), the crux of the story is the young love blossoming between Calliope and Juliette, despite their parents fighting desperately to keep them apart. Juliette proves a problem to her parents even before they discover her love affair with a slayer: she resents the vampire part of herself and wishes she were human. It baffles her sister, who revels in the reality of being a Legacy vampire. It has perks: they can eat human food, walk in the sunlight and easily blend into the human world. Plus, they're part of a matriarchal vampire structure that they're next in line to inherit. But to take her place in the family, Juliette needs to make her first kill — an act that she considers unthinkable. So while it hurts her to cause her family pain, her crush on Calliope is a welcome escape from her impending vampire future.

For Calliope, having feelings for Juliette is much more complicated. Cal feels at home with her family: she's grown up surrounded by strong slayers, fighting to protect the world from monsters. She's thrilled at the opportunity to take her place among them — if only they'd let her. With two older brothers, she's seen as the "baby sis" who still needs training wheels. But Calliope is fierce and headstrong, so when the chance for her first kill arises, she's quick to take it. Then along comes Juliette, who has the power to make Cal question everything she once believed about monsters.

Lewis and Hook share a chemistry that's more natural than electric, but when the show makes the case for the power of young love, they embrace it. The Shakespeare references say it all — the feeling of being together is powerful enough that they're willing to risk everything. It's enough to make YA connoisseurs like myself swoon, even though they're making terrible decisions every five seconds, they're fueled by that need to treasure the budding love. The show is at its best when it's them, battling their every instinct and upbringing for the sake of being close. And when their families get involved? It just gets better. Where Juliette's mother Margot (Elizabeth Mitchell) could've been an ice-queen stereotype, the show imbues her with surprising humanity. And as Cal's monster-staking mother Talia, Aubin Wise is an MVP, emotionally grounding a show that otherwise has a tendency to float away. Speaking of which, that's the main problem with "First Kill": the tensions that make the show work so well end up being only a fraction of a story that otherwise meanders. It's pretty fitting actually — "First Kill" was obviously made for and by fans of those popular paranormal romances, and while it's embedded with all the same virtues, it's also guilty of the same sins.

The sins of the First Kill

Very much in the spirit of the very titles it modeled itself after, "First Kill" stumbles is in many of the same places. Jampacked with ideas, lore, and vibes, the substance of "First Kill" goes out the window ridiculously fast. Beyond the love story, the series spends time grappling with the two secret societies: the vampires and the monster-slaying organization, The Guild. How either of these organizations works remains a mystery because even though lore and new information are routinely dumped at our feet, the building blocks are precariously missing and it hardly matters — because most of it serves no real narrative purpose.

Annoyingly, there's actually a lot of potential in these plot threads: the matriarchal vampire system is a fascinating idea, if only it weren't half-baked and abandoned halfway through the story. This ends up being a trend, actually — a storyline or seemingly important stakes are introduced, unresolved, and left behind. Entire characters disappear for episodes at a time, before popping back in as though they were suspended in time, waiting for the moment when plot convenience would call them forth. Basic information that could've fleshed out the world from the get-go arrives much too late, like an afterthought to cover up a development that would otherwise be nonsensical. All of this leaves the story and its world muddled. Because of this, "First Kill" is precariously lacking in the atmosphere: the town of Savannah, the people that inhabit it, and the way the two families operate in their worlds are strangely elusive. "First Kill" expands on the Victoria Schwab short story of the same name and it shows: first, there was Calliope and Juliette, then came the world around them, fleshed out in bits and pieces.

The saving grace is Cal and Juliette, only because their love is the most clear-cut story and the easiest to latch onto. But even they get bogged down by the scattered bits of "First Kill," putting their storyline on shakier ground than it can bear. This is show that knows its audience, at least: many of these are familiar flaws and the kind that can be forgiven for the sake of having fun with the melodramas of a forbidden love story, and a rare sapphic inclusion at that.

/Film Rating: 5.5 out of 10