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The Genteel, Supernatural Smut of A Discovery of Witches

Vampires and witches and demons, oh my

Teresa Palmer plays Diana, an American academic and historian who’s a visiting research fellow at Oxford, giving cursory lectures on her specialist subject—alchemy—exercising a lot, and wearing pantsuits to the university library. (AMC)

You will probably enjoy A Discovery of Witches if you enjoyed, for instance, Outlander. Or Fifty Shades of Grey. Or the Harry Potter franchise. Or Romeo and Juliet. Or old episodes of Inspector Morse on PBS. Or Underworld. Or that enchanting imported show on the network no one can ever find in which Matthew Goode and Matthew Rhys travel the world being handsome and drinking wine. There is, to say, a lot going on. Some of it is very diverting, given that the location budget seems to have been approximately $10 trillion and the series is about witches and vampires who are all rather—how to put this politely—horny. But in other moments, when a woman has her third recurring dream about spiders, or when someone says, without a tinge of self-awareness, “She’ll be sleeping in my tower,” you might have to decide how far your personal tolerance for irony-devoid supernatural travel porn extends.

It is surprising, in a good way, that A Discovery of Witches arrived on Sunday on BBC America and AMC, that purveyor of gruesome zombies, difficult men, and a scowling Pierce Brosnan in a nubby vest and a 10-gallon hat. The adaptation of Deborah Harkness’s All Souls fantasy series first aired in the U.K. on Sky One, before heading to the streaming services Sundance Now and Shudder, where it smashed Sundance Now’s previous viewing records. Following that success, as well as AMC’s decision to air Killing Eve’s second season simultaneously with BBC America, Kate Brooke’s supernatural drama has been drafted to join the lineup on both networks.

Teresa Palmer plays Diana, an American academic and historian who’s a visiting research fellow at Oxford, giving cursory lectures on her specialist subject, alchemy; exercising a lot; and wearing pantsuits to the university library, the Bodleian. The library is where, after she requests a book one day, something strange happens—there’s an odd whoosh-y sound, Diana begins to see text moving through previously empty pages, and she suddenly develops an ugly red scar on the palm of her hand. Moreover, lots of people in Oxford suddenly seem to have been alerted to her presence, including Matthew (Matthew Goode), a biologist with an extraordinary sense of smell and some unconventional eating habits.

Matthew is, indubitably, an Anglo-French Christian Grey. He appears to own several castles, one of which has actual peacocks on its lawn. He drinks wine and finds notes of blackberry, cigar smoke, and red currants in brandy (nonbrandied red currants not being specific enough). He stalks Diana, rather unappealingly, for the first few episodes, and at one point sniffs her discarded gym clothes before his face contorts into a disturbing grimace. He can run so fast that he becomes a blur, a skill he utilizes to hunt and eat deer in the Scottish highlands. Matthew is, in other words, a vampire. And Diana is, unbeknown to her, a witch who’s only now coming into her consequential powers.

In the world of A Discovery of Witches, vampires and witches walk the Earth as enemies, but have dwindled in number and power over the centuries. (There are also demons, but the series doesn’t seem to care about them or explain what they do other than break impasses when supernatural representatives congregate.) Diana and Matthew, two members of factions that have fought for virtually as long as they’ve coexisted, are inexorably forbidden to fraternize, let alone fall heavily for each other, but neither seems remotely deterred by this. Matthew craves Diana, both in the romantic sense and—it’s his nature—as a snack. Diana craves Matthew, too, and while she isn’t hungry for his blood, nor is she underwhelmed by the state of his tower.

A Discovery of Witches just looks expensive. It’s as gorgeously shot and cinematic as a Bond movie, sweeping over the spires and cobbled streets of Oxford, the azure canals of Venice, and the various stately homes and ancestral châteaus that Matthew calls home (when you’ve been alive for more than a thousand years, the series hints, you acquire an extreme amount of real estate). As far as TV series go, it’s hopelessly unsubtle, in one episode scoring a scene featuring demons with the Imagine Dragons song “Demons.” The dialogue is frequently painful, although it’s hard to say whether it’s more or less bearable than Matthew’s habit of name-dropping historical figures like Charles Darwin and Machiavelli. “Did you … survive the fall of Carthage?” an awestruck Diana asks. “Which fall of Carthage?” Matthew smirks back.

As Matthew, Goode is clearly here to have a good time, scowling and sniffing and shooting Palmer’s Diana so many hot looks that you worry her hair might catch fire. Vampires, he tells her, are “efficient. Our bodies don’t use up much energy, so we have an awful lot to draw upon when we need to.” (Hello.) Palmer has the trickier role with Diana. She’s essentially playing the central figure in a Harlequin romance, who’s also a tenured professor at Yale, and the script bolsters one of those elements much more heavily than the other. It’s hard to get a sense of Diana’s discombobulation, or her tragic history, or her academic prowess, especially when the show zips so briskly through fragments of one of her lectures that it might as well be saying blah blah blah.

Nor are the supporting characters given much to inhabit beyond complicating—or stoking, as the scene might require—the scorching passion between aristocratic English vamp and educated American witch. Lindsay Duncan plays Matthew’s mother, a terrifying tartar. Alex Kingston is Diana’s aunt, a witch living in Madison County, New York. Trevor Eve is a particularly scary vampire who keeps mysterious talking heads in locked closets. Louise Brealey plays a witch who hovers nervously in different locations. The rising actor Edward Bluemel is Matthew’s “son.”

Over eight episodes, A Discovery of Witches knows what it is supposed to do, and it does it fairly well. It has its own parlance (nonvampires are dismissively referred to as “warmbloods”), its stunning vistas of rural French hills and yachts covered in polished teak, and its central story of forbidden love, defined by a dynamic that I can only describe as sexy-sexy sex. Might you grimace slightly when the camera focuses on Diana reading a web page with a header blaring “Feeding Habits of Wolves,” or feel a flutter of a cringe when Matthew murmurs about candied violets ruining Elizabeth Tudor’s teeth? Sure. But Matthew and Diana are, at least, equals, and that fact alone sets A Discovery of Witches apart from other contenders to its genteel-but-sensual-otherworldly-drama crown.