TV series with storyworlds in the realm of the supernatural or the fantastic will likely always earn their success as cult hits rather than as ratings winners. More often than not, they end up being too weird for many, too frivolous for others, but just right for some, their fortunes rising and falling on the loyalties of their relatively small, but thoroughly committed audiences.
That commitment is clearly worth something to programmers and executives because every year in the US sees a new crop of shows destined, maybe even designed, to find a dedicated core of rabid and reliable fans rather than for placement in the weekly top ten. Notably, the end of an established series inevitably sets off a competition to find and cultivate the next otherworldly TV cult.
The conclusion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (The WB/UPN, 1997-2003), and subsequent cancellation of its spin-off Angel (The WB, 1999-2004), set off an ongoing rush of series with vampires, youthful demon fighters, and supernatural detectives. Some of these took root and grew into an audience, The WB’s Supernatural, for example, while others, such as Fox’s New Amsterdam, were hardly in the ground before getting ripped up and tossed aside. The Canadian-produced Blood Ties, which ran on Lifetime in 2007 for two seasons and 22 episodes, is one of the cast-offs.
For those unfamiliar with the series, Blood Ties is set in Toronto, Ontario and is centered on a trio of characters: private investigator Vicki Nelson (Christina Cox), vampire, and illegitimate son of Henry VIII, Henry Fitzroy (Kyle Schmid), and police detective Mike Celluci (Dylan Neal). Vicki was once Mike’s partner, both on and off of the job, but failing eyesight resulted in her having to leave the police force. The details of her falling out with Mike are not clear, but Henry’s entry into the picture creates a tense love triangle between the three.
After taking a case from Coreen Fennel (Gina Holden), whose boyfriend was killed in hard-to-explain circumstances with Vicki as a witness, Vicki finds herself uncovering an underworld of magic, demons, and other supernatural phenomena. The two part premiere, “Blood Price”, leaves Vicki with the mark of the demon Astrof (AKA “Asatroth”, “Asteroth”) on her wrists, the goth-y Coreen as her assistant, and in an informal partnership with Henry. From there, Vicki begins to develop a reputation for taking on strange cases, and because of her demonic tattoos, might, herself, be an attractor of dark forces.
One of the compelling things about canceled shows with small, niche audiences, and strange characters and storylines is that fans (and anti-fans) can have endless discussions as to whether a series failed to make it because it simply wasn’t very good, or because it was misused and misunderstood. My postmortem on Blood Ties suggests that, ultimately, the series ended less because Lifetime executives didn’t understand what they had, and more because it never became as good as it seemingly could have been.
However, before taking this examination any further, a couple of prefatory notes are in order.
First, I enjoyed the first season of Blood Ties. The set up is rich with possibilities. Vicki and Henry are initially likable, and the larger ensemble, which includes not only Coreen, but also medical examiner Rajani Mohadevan (Nimet Kanji), Mike’s partners, Kate Lam (Francoise Yip) and Dave Graham (Keith Dallas), and professor Betty Sagara (Linda Sorensen), is suggestive of opportunities for dramatic conflict, twists, and secrets. I looked forward to season two, and was appropriately bummed when a DVR crash resulted in the loss of those episodes. So, while I found the series to be disappointing in the end, I had hope at the start.
Second, I have not read the Tanya Huff books on which the series is based. Arguments about whether the show was too faithful to the books or not faithful enough, or whether the show’s strengths and weaknesses are also those of Huff’s Blood Books or not, will need to happen somewhere else. My interest is in Blood Ties simply as a TV show, not as an adaptation.
As a TV show, I think there are two critical areas where the series went wrong. The first is in character development.
It seems reasonable to assert that the success or failure of scripted television often pivots on viewer willingness to invest in a series’ or show’s characters. Even the most formulaic of programs benefit from well-written, well-played characters who work within the formula. Characters whose daily lives involve encounters with monsters and black magic, or space zombies or mad scientists (you get the picture), risk coming across as unrelatable if not carefully crafted. At the same time, going too far in the direction of presenting one’s cast as “just folks” may make them seem unrealistic to audiences, not so much in terms of real life, but in terms of the series itself and the fantastic things that happen there. Blood Ties errs in this latter direction.
The weak link among the principal cast is Mike. He is a thoroughly pedestrian guy. This takes much of the heat out of the ostensible love triangle. It also makes it hard to understand why all of his female partners seem irresistibly drawn to him, or, equally why we should care about his season two career angst. I am hard-pressed to say what Vicki and Mike really mean to each other, or what the job meant to either of them.
Still, these problems are not limited to Mike. Henry and Vicki never grow much beyond their season one introductions. Henry is charismatic, romantic, and artistic. He is, in other words, a standard leading vampire man. Vicki is tough, smart, and sexy, albeit always sensibly dressed. She is, in other words, a standard, modern female p.i. More to the point, little is done with either character’s distinguishing traits, be it Henry’s age, or his work as a comics artist, or Vicki’s tattoos and poor vision. Even as the series lurches towards its emotionally cloudy conclusion, neither Henry nor Vicki is stretched past their most basic elements.
Of all the members of the supporting cast, the most ill-used is Coreen, who by the time she does get to assume more of a critical place in the show’s proceedings, has become a goth caricature. What makes this especially regrettable is that the series finale, “Deep Dark”, wherein Coreen is possessed by Astrof, suggests that Gina Holden is an actress capable of doing more than look cute in black. As to the other recurring characters, Dr. Mohadevan’s open-mindedness makes her a possible wild card, but one that doesn’t get played often enough or to good effect, Mike’s partners are ciphers, Kate and Dave come and go, and mostly do what’s required for the plot, and Dr. Sagara is out of the picture after season one. Astrof does not get to emerge as anything more than a presence in the narrative until “Deep Dark”.
Next to the characters, the other critical element for a show like Blood Ties is its mythos. Like its characters, this too is left in need of stronger development.
The series starts with the promise of an ongoing struggle with the dark forces unleashed by Astrof and left on Vicki’s body. These events provide a kind of frame for the first season, but in between, the series falls into a freaky thing of the week pattern with little mention of the demon or what Vicki may or not be left carrying.
Perhaps indicative of the show’s lack of narrative direction is the positioning of episode thirteen, “D.O.A.”, which shows up as either the final episode of season one or as the first episode of season two depending on what listing you consult (it is attached to season one for the DVD set). In either case, the story involves an undercover police detective, gangs, and demon possession, but no mention of the near apocalyptic events of the prior episode, “Norman”, which include predictions of Vicki’s death and another attempt by Astrof to enter the human world.
In season two, starting with “5:55”, the series’s creators begin to show signs of ambitions towards telling a larger story, but this occurs mostly through gestures in the right directions rather than through the actual building of new layers for the Blood Ties storyworld. Hardly an episode goes by from this point on where there isn’t some mention of Vicki’s tattoos, but these are largely perfunctory. No one devotes much attention to trying to puzzle out what the marks mean, for Astrof or Vicki, even when she seemingly taps into their energy for her own purposes, for example in “5:55” and “Bugged”.
There are also attempts to explain vampire culture in season two, with implications for Henry and Vicki’s relationship, but these are left dangling, introduced too late to add real depth to the series’s mythology, as are the nods at Henry’s capacity for hubris and the less than virtuous aspects of his past.
Henry’s distaste for black magic, which is formally established in season one, resurfaces in a potentially meaningful way in “Wrapped”, where Vicki turns to the dark arts in an effort to save Henry from being consumed by a powerful Incan mummy. This results in some of the first discussions, and fissures, between characters over the dangers of accessing supernatural forces, but, as with the other, deeper story elements, there isn’t enough context, or sense of the stakes involved, to save the show by the time these implications are given some kind of articulation.
The release of a Complete Series DVD set is an occasion for fans to own and revisit, and re-examine, their beloved show. The Blood Ties collection has the episodes, but little else. The meager extras include a couple of trailers, a “Behind the Scenes Documentary”, which is really a series promo, and a photo gallery.
One of the points of debate for any foreshortened series is what would have happened in the seasons that never came to be. Maybe the third season, following Astrof’s entry into ‘our’ dimension, would have been the one when Blood Ties blossomed into the show it could have been with the audience it needed to have. Based on the existing record, however, I suspect that the season three that lives in the minds of fans is likely more rich and vibrant than the actual article would have been.