tv review: first kill
Imani Lewis and Sarah Catherine Hook in First Kill (2022)
In the vampiric underworld of Savannah, The Fairmonts and the Burns are two powerful feuding families. After all, vampires and vampire slayers are destined to be at war for eternity. That is until the families’ youngest, Juliette Fairmont (Sarah Catherine Hook) and Calliope Burns (Imani Lewis), meet and fall in love. Juliette had been crushing on Calliope (nicknamed Cal) at school for a while, and clumsily invites her to a house party. After a quick round of spin-the-bottle, they are alone in a room together for the first time. But this ‘first time’ quickly becomes a potential ‘first kill’ as the teenagers reveal their true nature. Both on the cusp of achieving this ‘milestone,’ they feel pressure from their families to prove themselves worthy. Juliette and Cal are taught the three golden rules of a first kill: stay calm, keep your head on, and be prepared for anyone. But nothing could prepare them for the emotional rollercoaster following their first kiss. Based on the short story by best-selling author Victoria “V.E.” Schwab, First Kill is an entertaining queer YA series and a modern day Shakespearian Buffy with a love story at the core. Many young adults will be able to see themselves on screen given the open-hearted storytelling, subversion of queer tropes, and strength of representation.
While film and television has been saturated with vampire content over the years, First Kill feels refreshing in its central themes around identity and belonging. Rather than turn queerness into a point of conflict, this is simply portrayed on screen as matter-of-factly and invites a younger generation of viewers to watch queer characters who feel real. Juliette and Cal are going through normal teenage insecurities and butterflies, plus dealing with a high standard set by their families to succeed within a very specific path. On top of all the typical teenaged angst, they face the otherworldly threats of ghouls, zombies, and stake knives to the heart. Juliette comes from a family of Legacies, powerful vampires who draw strength from their queen mother serpent and make it nearly impossible for slayers to kill. Cal is from a family of celebrated vampire slayers whose mission is to ward off monsters. Savannah is a tough city to keep clean, its centuries of violence the perfect hub for the Legacies to feed. In order to fulfill destiny, Juliette as a vampire and Cal as a vampire slayer, they must train to see each other as monsters. But when it comes to the heart, no amount of training can simply change how they feel. The first episode sets up the premise nicely; we learn the perspectives of both protagonists and their family dynamics at home. We also get to know how Cal in particular is able to see the signs of Juliette’s identity as a day-walker vampire.
This love story has Shakespeare written all over it: two young lovers destined to be together but whose love is forbidden by opposing families. Episodes five and six feature sweet references to Romeo & Juliet (in the protagonists’ case, Juliet and Juliet), from recreating the famous balcony scene to reciting words from the play. Whether Juliette and Cal will subvert tragedy and get a happy ending is enough reason to anticipate the green light of a second season. As well, the concept of First Kill works through interesting dynamics within the horror genre. The question of ‘what if the monsters are not all monsters inside?’ is the driving force for most of the conflict. Cal is taught that vampires don’t feel and don’t love. As the love grows between her and Juliette, she begins to question her family’s beliefs and her loyalty to them is tested. Meanwhile, Juliette uncovers ugly truths about her own family and in particular her sister Elinor (Gracie Dzienny), whose ‘perfect vampire’ persona has dangerous tendencies.
First Kill is a fitting example of how ‘cheesy’ is not necessarily a weakness. Sure, the visual effects are goofy and stick out like a sore thumb. Yes, the dialogue can be on-the-nose and a little stifled. But the episodes are certainly entertaining to watch unfold. The story is anchored by great chemistry between the two leads; Imani Lewis and Sarah Catherine Hook bring such conviction to their characters, it would be impossible for this series to have much bite without them. They have a push-pull kind of attraction and carry the emotional weight of their characters with an understanding of Cal and Juliette’s internal conflict. Also complimenting their work is a strong female gaze behind the camera. Felicia D. Henderson, show runner/writer/executive producer, is among a team of mostly female producers including Emma Roberts and Sarah Preiss. As well as a female writer, V.E. Schwab, who is adapting her own short story. From the way the protagonists’ backstories are presented, there is a clear level of care taken to exploring who they are and how they navigate the world as teenagers under pressure. Time is also given to a lot of the supporting characters, played by actors who are game for the material and know exactly how to draw that fine line between camp and earnest. Among the cast standouts are Aubin Wise, who plays Cal's mother Talia with such wonderful pathos and screen presence.
Schwab’s story resonates as one that older audiences may have wished they had growing up. First Kill is a campy 8-episode horror series centering queerness in a way that feels authentic and simply a part of the storytelling. The two protagonists are each given autonomy in their perspectives, and share a compelling dynamic that intensifies. Each episode ends with an unraveled thread that keeps the stakes high and makes you thirsty to watch more. While the ending opens doors to a second season, the decision to end on the development of less interesting supporting character journeys is questionable. Especially given the strong dynamics set up between Juliette and Cal for the series duration. Both protagonists are still learning about themselves, their capabilities, and whether to pursue the true feelings they have for each other despite the vampire/slayer roles. What Juliette and Cal come to realize is that there is a first for everything.
All eight episodes of First Kill are streaming June 10th on Netflix.
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