Total Recall

50 Years of Vampire TV Series

With The Vampire Diaries premiering this week, we look at some other memorable TV bloodsuckers.

by | September 30, 2015 | Comments

TV vampire fans suffered a painful loss in August, when HBO’s True Blood aired its series finale after seven sudsy seasons of sharp-fanged melodrama. All is not lost, however; the CW’s The Vampire Diaries begins its seventh season on October 8, and in honor of its return, we decided to dedicate this week’s list to a look back at some of the small screen’s most noteworthy nosferatus. It’s time for Total Recall!

Dark Shadows (1966-71, 1991, 2004)


Initially something of a Hail Mary pass for a network whose daytime lineup struggled against its broadcast rivals, ABC’s Dark Shadows added a novel supernatural twist to the nascent TV soap medium, weaving a gothic tale of monsters, werewolves, zombies, witches, and everyone’s favorite vampire, Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid). Always a solid hit, Shadows nevertheless fell under the axe in 1971, largely because its audience skewed heavily younger than other soaps (and therefore had significantly less buying power). But like any good vampire, it proved hard to kill, briefly resurfacing with a new cast on NBC in 1991 and again at the WB in 2004, when an unaired pilot filmed for the network. There’s also the Johnny Depp-led 2012 film adaptation, which most fans of the original would probably like to forget — and they can, since the bulk of the show’s initial run is still available, and audio dramas starring the original cast continue to be produced.

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The Night Stalker (1972)


Years before he became part of an annual holiday tradition as the cantankerous father in A Christmas Story, Darren McGavin helped enthrall millions of viewers as the lead in ABC’s The Night Stalker, a hugely successful adaptation of the Jeff Rice novel The Kolchak Papers, about a Las Vegas reporter who slowly becomes convinced that a vampire is responsible for a series of grisly murders in the area. Originally aired in January of 1972, Stalker earned a 33.2 rating and 54 share, practically guaranteeing a sequel (which soon arrived in the form of The Night Strangler) and spawning a full-on series (1974-’75’s Kolchak: The Night Stalker), as well as a belated remake (2005’s short-lived Night Stalker). Deeply influential, Rice’s creation (initially adapted by I Am Legend author Richard Matheson) inspired a long list of writers that includes X-Files creator Chris Carter, who years later cast McGavin as Arthur Dales, the agent who essentially founded the X-Files program.

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Forever Knight (1989)


After checking out of General Hospital, starring in 1984’s Hard to Hold, and exhausting an impressive string of ’80s Top 40 hits, reformed pop idol Rick Springfield turned his focus to his acting career. One of his first orders of business? 1989’s Nick Knight, about an LAPD detective who also happens to secretly be a centuries-old vampire. Sadly, CBS didn’t wish that they had Rick’s pilot, and ended up airing it as a TV movie instead of picking up the series — at least until 1992, when they moved it to Canada, replaced most of the cast (including Springfield), and aired the result as Forever Knight.

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Kindred: The Embraced (1996)

There have been lots of vampire TV shows, but only one was based on a video game, starred C. Thomas Howell, and had its plug pulled after a measly eight episodes: Kindred: The Embraced, which aired on the Fox network during the spring of 1996. Howell played SFPD detective Frank Kohanek, who’s understandably concerned when he discovers that in addition to plain old mortal criminals, his beat is also home to scores of vampires led by one particularly nasty bloodsucker who masquerades as a mobster named Julian Luna (Mark Frankel). It isn’t the worst premise — and at the time, reviews calling the show a “cross between The Godfather and Melrose Place” meant it as much more of a compliment than one might assume today — but by the end of the season, Howell was on to other projects.

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)


The film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, starring Kristy Swanson as the titular stake-wielder and Luke Perry as her scruffy teen paramour, seemed more likely to be buried in a ’90s time capsule than to serve as the inspiration for a long-running small-screen institution, but as ESPN’s Chris Berman might say, that’s why they make the TV shows. Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy, the broadcast Slayer — adapted by the movie’s screenwriter, future Avengers wrangler Joss Whedon — served as a surprisingly flexible forum for its creator’s imagination, expanding from its supernatural teen premise to hold a broadening mythology (the Buffyverse!) that encompassed everything from spinoffs to tie-ins and even a musical episode. Few vampire shows started from less auspicious-seeming beginnings — and few have demonstrated the genre’s flexibility with its compelling verve.

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Port Charles (1997-2003)


Unlike the other shows on our list, Port Charles didn’t always have a vampire theme; in fact, when it debuted as part of the ABC daytime lineup in 1997, it was a straight spinoff of General Hospital that focused on interns at the medical school across the street. Over time, however, in an effort to cut costs and lure younger viewers, the show adopted quicker, finite telenovela-style arcs while incorporating an extreme supernatural element that eventually saw the town of Port Charles overrun by a passel of vampires that included Caleb Morley (Michael Easton), whose sinister obsession with Livvie Locke (Kelly Monaco) proved so popular with viewers that not even multiple deaths could put an end to the character. Port Charles was canceled in 2003, seemingly ending Caleb’s story for good, but he returned a decade later when Easton, then playing his One Life to Live character John McBain on General Hospital, took on a dual role to solve the mystery of Caleb Morley once and for all. Maybe. This vampire stuff can get complicated.

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Angel (1999-2004)


Few spinoff series are ever truly taken seriously in their own right, and when Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted in 1997, few could have guessed that it would ever be able to weave the sort of robust, sprawling mythology that could support a brand new show, let alone one that would last for five seasons and attract a passionate fanbase of its own. But then came Angel, starring David Boreanaz as the titular vampire first introduced in Buffy‘s debut episode. With a rich backstory that stretched back hundreds of years and included a gypsy curse that restored his human soul (as well as a bottomless, brooding guilt for all the heinous things he’d done during his evil days), plus a setup that found Angel moving to L.A. and fighting evil as a (what else?) P.I., the character proved more than capable of telling plenty of stories in his own corner of the broadening Buffyverse, and despite the show’s surprisingly premature cancellation in 2004, those tales continue to be told in the comics, where Angel, Buffy, and assorted other characters from the shows live on.

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Blade: The Series (2006)


Initially planned as a Showtime series that would have brought big-screen Blade Wesley Snipes back to the role he played in the Blade film trilogy, Blade: The Series was temporarily derailed when Snipes sued New Line, the studio behind the movies — but not even legal action was enough to stop the idea of weekly vampire-huntin’ action, and the show was eventually greenlighted by Spike TV with Kirk Jones, a.k.a. former Onyx member Sticky Fingaz, in the lead. Blade: The Series pulled healthy numbers for the network, scoring the most-watched original series premiere in Spike TV’s history, but the channel simply wasn’t equipped to sustain the kind of budget that an open-ended show about the struggle to purge the world of vampires requires. After one 13-episode season, the plug was pulled, sending Blade back to the comics… for now.

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Moonlight (2007-2008)


Your wedding day is stressful enough without having to worry about having your neck tapped after the guests go home, but that’s the cross that Mick St. John (Alex O’Loughlin) has to bear; before he and his new bride (Shannyn Sossamon) could even get the honeymoon started, she revealed her vampirism to him — and passed it along. Moonlight picks up decades later, when Mick’s working as a P.I. who collars bad guys while battling his bloodlust, staving off attraction for a human woman (Sophia Myles), and renewing his turbulent acquaintance with his former bride, who was assumed dead but is actually lurking around claiming to have a cure for vampirism. In spite of that rather loaded premise, Moonlight was a critical punching bag during its brief run, and in spite of fairly healthy ratings, a hiatus prompted by the writers’ strike of 2007-08 put the final stake in the show’s heart.

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Being Human (2008-2013)


There were two Being Humans, with one broadcast by the BBC and its North American remake on Syfy, but thanks to the wonders of the ever-expanding cable dial, they both aired here, so we’re flipping a coin and focusing on the original here. Certainly one of the more critically lauded series on our list, Human starred Russell Tovey and Aidan Turner as a werewolf and vampire who have somehow managed to become best buds; as part of their ongoing effort to fit into human society, they work at a local hospital and room together — although as the series opens and they’re moving onto their new place, they discover that it just so happens to be inhabited by a ghost (Lenora Crichlow). Taken another direction, Being Human might have been laugh track-worthy, but it used its outlandish setup as the springboard for a thoughtful treatment of weighty social themes — and didn’t skimp on the action, either. The Syfy version, while not quite the award-winning sensation the original was, still earned healthy ratings for the network; perhaps best of all, both shows had the good sense to tell their stories within a relatively compact framework, with the original bowing out after 37 episodes and its successor bidding farewell after 52.

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True Blood (2008-2014)


Unlike a lot of vampire-themed productions, Alan Ball’s HBO hit True Blood didn’t fall back on “hey, vampires” for its supernatural drama; instead, inspired by author Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries books, it imagined a hypothetical near future in which the development of synthetic blood leads to vampires “coming out of the coffin” and revealing themselves to humanity — and then splitting themselves into factions over whether it’s better to assimilate or maintain separate societies. If that makes the show sound like a lot of high-minded speechifying, don’t worry — as any True Blood viewer will eagerly tell you, it’s a lot darker and sexier than that. Revolving around the small-town Louisiana adventures of a telepathic human-faerie hybrid named Sookie (Anna Paquin), it explores weighty themes like equal rights and substance abuse while leaving plenty of room for sexytime and sanguine fluid.

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The Vampire Diaries (2009-present)


Execs at the CW may have offed Angel before fans (and/or series creator Joss Whedon) were ready to let it go, but that didn’t mean the suits in the building were entirely blind to the appeal of a vampire series; in fact, five years later, it was bloodsucker season once more, when the network debuted The Vampire Diaries, a suitably soapy adaptation of the bestselling L. J. Smith book series about young Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) and her teen embroilment in a vampiric love triangle that just happens to be the tip of a very large, incredibly dramatic superantural iceberg in her small Virginia town. Six seasons and running, Diaries is enough of a signature hit for the network to deserve the place of honor on this week’s list — and it now boasts its own spinoff series: The Originals.

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From Dusk Till Dawn (2014-present)


Writer-director-producer-El Rey network exec Robert Rodriguez is an entertainment industry unto himself, and when you hold all those cards, you get to write your own rules — hence From Dusk till Dawn: The Series, the small-screen continuation of the 1996 film that starred George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino as a pair of hoods whose journey toward a Mexican safehouse is complicated when they stumble into a strip club that just happens to be full of vampires. After spawning a video game and a pair of sequels, Dusk dawned on Rodriguez’s network in 2014, with D.J. Cotrona and Zane Holtz stepping in for Clooney and Tarantino.

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The Strain (2014-present)


Guillermo del Toro is overflowing with ideas, and he’s got plenty of tenacity, too: After initially conceiving The Strain as a TV show but failing to find a buyer, he teamed up with author Chuck Hogan to turn it into a novel trilogy — and then, after the books spilled over into a comic series, took the story back to television, where The Strain made its FX debut in July of 2014. A grimly compelling look at the grisly rise of a horrific vampire army, it continually tests network TV’s ability to give del Toro’s freakshow imagination free rein, and so far, audiences can’t turn away.

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