Years of watching television aimed at young adults has taught me that young love is supposed to be painfully passionate and full of longing, heartache, and secret make-out sessions. It’s also much better when it’s forbidden, and when there are vampires involved, it’s just all the more intense (and hot). First Kill, Netflix’s new supernatural YA drama about two teenage girls who fall in love despite their status as mortal enemies, more than lives up to these high expectations. Just don’t expect the story to really make sense.
Based on a short story by V.E. Schwab, First Kill follows Juliette Fairmont (Sarah Catherine Hook), a legacy vampire living in plain sight with her vampire family in Savannah, Georgia. (In First Kill, being a legacy vamp means you’re born, not made, though how exactly this happens is unclear.) At 16, the blood pills she’s lived off of her entire life are losing their efficacy, and it’s time for her to make her first kill. But Juliette is a rare breed, a legacy vamp with a conscience who is desperate to avoid killing at all costs. Enter Calliope Burns (Imani Lewis), the new girl in school who Juliette can’t stop thinking about. But when she finally goes to shoot her shot, Juliette is met with a stake straight to the heart. Calliope also isn’t just a regular teenage girl; she’s a monster hunter raised by a family of monster hunters. How’s that for forbidden love?
All the popular vampire shows or movies in the past two decades feature some kind of Romeo and Juliet storyline — The Vampire Diaries’ Stefan and Elena or Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Angel and Buffy — and First Kill doesn’t shy away from these pop culture comparisons. In fact, the opening credits features an incredibly catchy song that actually name drops Twilight’s Bella and Edward. But forbidden love alone is not enough to carry a show; it’s the chemistry between the leads that has to sustain the story, and relative newcomers Hook and Lewis are more than up for the challenge. Their chemistry is electric, and the longing glances exchanged when they can’t be making out with each other in private are guaranteed to inspire hundreds of fanfiction stories. And make no mistake, they make out a lot. From the very first scene, First Kill makes a point of highlighting the physical aspect of Juliette and Calliope’s relationship — perhaps a response to the overly sanitized portrayal of same-sex relationships previously seen on television.
Hook is especially intriguing, playing Juliette with just the right mix of teenage aloofness and sexual frustration. She’s somehow able to make being a teenage vampire awkward and uncomfortable. Lewis, meanwhile, has a bit less to play with. Calliope is a much more self-assured character than Juliette, and her emotions are more contained, but Lewis does her best to add as much depth to Calliope as possible. This is especially evident in fight scenes, where Lewis excels. Calliope is most comfortable fighting monsters and training, and Lewis’ physicality reflects that.
Though First Kill definitely takes cues from Buffy and Twilight, it also tweaks the vampire show format to allow for more family drama. The threat to Juliette and Calliope doesn’t come from a monster of the week or an anonymous big bad, it comes from their parents. Both girls have strong ties to their families, which allows for fun supporting characters — like Juliette’s dangerous but loving older sister, Elinor (Gracie Dzienny), and Calliope’s sweet older brother, Theo (Phillip Mullings Jr.) — to have more presence than just a clueless parent (like Bella’s dad in Twilight), like in so many vampire stories. In truth, the real scene stealers are the mothers: Margot, the matriarch of the legacy vampire family played by Elizabeth Mitchell, and Talia (Aubin Wise), the tough-as-nails monster hunter torn between wanting to protect her daughter and let her grow. Mitchell and Wise go head to head throughout the season in a delightful parallel to Juliette and Calliope’s growing relationship.
The mothers in First Kill are much more frightening than the actual monsters, which are too poorly realized to be scary. Luckily, the fight scenes are choreographed well enough to distract you from how bland the monsters look. Vamps aside, the Burnses fight ghouls and shapeshifting beasts, all of which look like they walked straight off of the Buffy set in 1999. And the special effects used to enhance these mystical creatures are uneven — some are completely CGI, others are very clearly just actors in heavy makeup — and this imbalance only makes them look more out of place.
It doesn’t help that the mythology surrounding these monsters is never explained. It’s established early on that Savannah has a history of being overrun by monsters, but the extent of that history, or what it might mean for the human characters on the show, is murky at best. Even the vampire mythology feels unfinished. The fact that Juliette is a “legacy” vampire is mentioned constantly, but the audience is never really told what that means in practice. How long will she live? Why has she aged like a normal human her whole life? Do legacy vampires have special powers? How can they die or be killed? These questions remain unanswered.
On the one hand, the lack of rules lowers the stakes because the audience doesn’t quite know when the vampire characters are risking their lives. But it also gives future seasons more intrigue. Mythology-heavy shows can sometimes fall into a trap of explaining things too soon, which leads to too much exposition and cuts off potential future storylines before they begin. By leaving so many questions unanswered, First Kill ends the season with unlimited options, which could make for an even better second season.
Overall, First Kill suffers from an inability to determine its audience. The monsters feel like they’re made for children, but the love story is a clear teenage romance, and this conflict could cause some viewers to lose interest. Production-wise, it looks more like a show one might find on the Disney Channel, and narratively, there probably isn’t enough mythology to really interest viewers looking for the next Umbrella Academy. But, for romantics, especially young romantics, First Kill has something few other vampire shows have right now: a super hot, super sweet same-sex romance at its center.
In the era of prestige television, it can be easy to dismiss a show like First Kill. Shows about supernatural teenagers rarely get the respect they deserve, especially if they don’t have the budget of Stranger Things. But they can be formative for the teens that watch them. The fandoms that develop around television shows can create a community that viewers lack at home. No matter how uneven some aspects of First Kill are, with an epic love story at its center it has the potential to give audiences, specifically young people who identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, a show that validates them. There’s no downside to that.
First Kill season 1 is now streaming on Netflix.