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10 episodes of vampire TV that remind us you only live twice

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about—without having to watch the whole thing.

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On the movie screen, vampires often reach the fullness of their symbolic promise. They represent the Other from a far-off place; they’re an otherwordly evil that justifies good old religious piousness; they’re a seductive proxy for forbidden desires; they’re a glimmer of the eternal in a world full of death. It’s a wildly popular and flexible formula for film. Vampires are also, by the very nature of the medium, ephemeral; with the rare exception of a franchise, a movie vampire’s story flickers in and out, then vanishes.

When it comes to television, the rules change. Theoretically, the expanded canvas allows for ever-greater depth of characterization, and the metaphors should translate with ease given so much room for exploration. But the rigors of serial storytelling mean it’s almost inevitable that at some point, the mythos will stretch past the point of holding on to the mystique, and the series will veer toward either the sublime horizon of camp or the precipice of awkwardness. The timetable varies, depending on the elasticity of the show’s premise and how close it was to either of these poles to begin with, but it’s worth noting how many of the vampire shows on this list lacked long-term staying power. The longest running? Dark Shadows, in which Barnabas Collins spent 1,245 episodes drawing himself up to full height and portenting at 40 miles an hour. (The shortest lived is Kindred: The Embraced, which made it through only eight episodes before it got the ax.)

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Not that it’s stopped anyone from trying to capture a big-screen vampire on the small screen. Occasionally, there’s a smooth transition; From Dusk Till Dawn drew deeper characterization from the film’s pulpy stock characters. Some series have been largely interested in the risqué cachet of it all (anthology series The Hunger, which ran from 1997 - 2000), and others in the action, as when screenwriter David S. Goyer followed the Blade franchise to the Spike channel, where the emphasis on low-budget vampire corporate espionage left its title hero slightly adrift. Given how tricky it is to recreate the ineffable mystery or the production values of film vampires, it’s no wonder the default for many vampire series is either the metaphorically rich and inexpensive world of adolescence or the stalwart urban-fantasy procedural in some easy-to-shoot locale that’s simply teeming with supernatural activity. That’s changing with the rise of the miniseries and an increasingly cinematic value being placed on TV; on a purely aesthetic level, Penny Dreadful decimates everything else on this list. But most vampire shows don’t try to rest on aesthetics anyway; they’re now a television go-to for exploring power imbalance in relationships.

It’s an addition to a long list of metaphors and tropes that television vampires must negotiate. Two things are certain: bloodlust, and nightclubs. Other than that, the mythologies are like fingerprints, and have as many twists and turns. Depending on story needs and night-shoot budget, vampires can walk in daylight if they’re wearing a particular talisman, or if they’ve fed, or if it’s indirect light, or not at all. They must drink blood, unless they don’t have to; crosses and silver and garlic have wildly varying levels of efficacy. They appear in photos and reflections, or not in anything silver-backed, or in nothing. And though other traits are up in the air in any given canon (not many compulsive counters on this list, for example), many television vampires share a vague but undeniable compulsion to solve a crime or mystery every week. (How ubiquitous is the trend? Ask Vampire Lawyer.)

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Encompassing the full spread of vampire television is an impossible task for a single piece, as is trying to create any objective rubric in an arena where greatness is often measured in conceptual audacity rather than stylish execution. And so this list, which encompasses over half a century of vampire television and uses only one episode from any given show, aims instead to explore the elasticity of the vampire in a television framework—as metaphor for any number of social and political status quos, as characters with devoted fan bases, and as their own self-sustaining theme of trying to escape the past. And though pop culture seems to be constantly tackling the debate of whether “vampires are over,” this is one walking metaphor the small screen is never giving up; there’s always room for one more to rise from the grave.

Dark Shadows, Episode 291 (1967): Though the supernatural soap was… deliberately paced, Dark Shadows found success by embracing the Full Gothic: tremulous theremin, doleful stares, and self-parody foreshadowing from vampire patriarch Barnabas Collins. The soap introduced him as an antagonist, but after he gave a wrenching monologue about the death of his first wife, Josette, Barnabas began a trajectory out of villainhood. However, the show lacked a proper foil for him until the appearance of Dr. Julia Hoffman, who knew exactly what Barnabas was up to—and who he was. In episode 291, Julia convinces Barnabas to let her experiment on him to reverse his curse—a flash of understanding and a hope of escaping immortal inertia. It’s the beginning of a loaded vampire-human friendship that moves from twisted proxy family to a devoted standing flirtation. This dynamic would become familiar in TV series in the following decades, though perhaps few have been as gleefully amoral as these two.

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“Dracula,” TV play from anthology series Mystery And Imagination (1968): Proof that some things are best when finite (sorry, NBC). It’s a staged production by nature, and this solidly produced adaptation makes several major tweaks trying to the whole affair to under two hours—Jonathan Harker takes up the narrative duties of Renfield, among others. But for its central character, it sticks to the Bram Stoker basics: herein lies a vampire happy just to be himself. Interestingly, Lucy and Mina’s friendship is positioned so centrally that it’s undead Lucy who first seduces Mina into the bite. (Perhaps to undercut these Sapphic overtures, the movie also includes scenes of an ecstatic Lucy being bitten by Dracula, so overtly sexual they must have just barely skirted Standards And Practices.) And whenever the show takes advantage of the medium—like a location shoot that provides a languorous tracking shot of Lucy walking past the bay windows of Dracula’s abandoned house—we see the visual hints of serial vampires to come, always on the move but never really at home.

Angel, “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been” (season two, episode two, 2000): Angel began in the shadow of Buffy, and its first season felt duly self-conscious. But the ongoing exploration of Angel’s past highlighted a more measured arc than other TV-vamp origin stories. “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been” is one of the series’ finest, as Angel’s stay at the Hyperion Hotel in 1952 is touched by McCarthyism, homophobia, and racism (most poignantly through Judy, a young woman who stole from her bosses after she was fired for passing). You hardly need the demon—which of course is the point. And the greatest achievement of “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been” is how deftly it illustrates the everyday grind of being immortal; social mores that consume the humans living through a particular era are just so many arbitrary blips for a vampire. Within that framework, detachment seems inevitable, and the episode’s bittersweet ending leans on how much Angel’s changed, to think that humans matter after all.

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The X-Files, “Bad Blood” (season five, episode 12, 1998): It’s worth watching simply to savor the cold open, as the camera pans up to reveal Mulder’s just-committed murder. But of course, as with most X-Files episodes, this is only the beginning. “Bad Blood” deconstructs the vampire amid the usual plot twists, using Mulder and Scully’s conflicting stories to play with perception, narrative, and trust—a rare reversal in which something else becomes a metaphor for vampires. As usual for The X-Files, there are smart details included about the legend at hand, with great use of the compulsive grain-counting aspect of vampirism. But for a monster-of-the-week episode of a show where vampires weren’t a primary concern, it’s a great instance of exploring mythology, both about vampires and about the subjectivity of storytelling itself. As Mulder says—in his version, anyway—“Vampires have always been with us, in ancient myths and stories passed down from early man.” (As Scully says, *eyeroll*.)

The Twilight Zone, “Red Snow” (season one, episode 21, 1986): Vampires are such handy placeholders for the Other that the biggest twist in “Red Snow” isn’t the big reveal, but the fact that for once, the Other is somebody else. The Communist Party officials who check in on Siberia and vanish are clearly the victims of vampires. The suspense comes in waiting alongside the townspeople for Colonel Ilyanov, newly assigned to investigate the case, to realize what’s going on. It’s less a supernatural horror show than it is an atmospheric character study and political fable. The savvy Ilyanov (George Dzundza), who’s no particular acolyte of the Communist cause, finds that his moderate position serves him well among the townspeople. Their acceptance shields him from danger as he begins to investigate the missing officers—and one beautiful, ageless woman who’s the key to discovering the creatures in the woods, of course. There’s little to unsettle here, but it isn’t meant to; rarely has there been another group of TV vampires so little demonized.

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Penny Dreadful, “Closer Than Sisters” (season one, episode five, 2013): Premiering after the widely hyped plummeting biplane of Dracula, Penny Dreadful carried a lot of expectations about its gothic trappings. Turns out there was no need to worry; the show never met a gothic trapping it didn’t love, and those not cleverly tweaked were fondly reenacted—as with “Closer Than Sisters,” which was a distinctly 19th-century epistolary on top of everything else. Dracula’s homoeroticism lives on in Vanessa’s relationship to her best friend Mina, whom she loves with Carmilla-esque devotion. When Mina gets engaged, their relationship’s poisoned by Vanessa’s barely articulated torment at losing her friend (plus some seduction—this is the gothic). But the rest of the Dracula parallels in this episode are actually reflected in the medieval medical treatments Vanessa receives when her guilt drives her to distraction; the horror of her isolation and mistreatment make her so desperate to see Mina again that it hardly matters when Mina reveals she, too, has become a monster.

The Vampire Diaries, “Before Sunset” (season three, episode 21, 2012): Rare is the show that churns through plot as fearlessly as The Vampire Diaires. In its great machine—a long-term metaphor for small-town life more than an examination of a particular vampire mythos—all possible plots will be used, all themes explored, and all characters will be both good and evil, often from week to week. And “Before Sunset” is an exemplar of the form. In an eight-hour time crunch, several sets of alliances are formed and broken as ancient bloodsucker Klaus, bitter vampire vampire-hunter Alaric, and central brothers Stefan and Damon battle over human Elena. Several people die (it’s temporary; this is a small town), and it has its share of ridiculous moments (vampires hurling stakes across a threshold). But the frenetic action highlights Elena’s eternal ambivalence about an “ordinary” life, which nicely foreshadows the next episode’s biggest-ever cliffhanger: Elena’s turned into a vampire.

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Buffy The Vampire Slayer, “Fool For Love” (season five, episode seven): Ah, Buffy, the ultimate supernatural-as-metaphor show. One of the big questions the later seasons dealt with was how any villain could beat a heroine so physically adept and battle-hardened. In “Fool for Love,” Buffy’s stabbed in a routine fight, and when she tries to understand it by asking Spike about Slayer deaths, he confirms her worst fears: She carries the seed of her own destruction. While there’s also some time-honored vampire self-mythologizing within Spike’s flashbacks (spoilers: he did it all for chicks), the episode reaches a fever pitch as Spike breaks the fourth wall during his play-by-play of killing a Slayer in 1977, a fight within a fight as he explains to Buffy exactly why she’s so drawn to the dark. It’s an unapologetic act of violence that dares Buffy—and the viewer—to understand the darkness behind any vampire’s veneer of romance. And for Buffy, it’s a chilling glimpse of her death wish, a fate as ingrained for the Slayer as vampires themselves.

Being Human, “Damage” (season two, episode seven, 2010): This list is awash with metaphors, and here’s no exception: Being Human often treated Mitchell’s vampirism as an addiction, and he struggled to stay “on the wagon” amid peer pressure. He’s the sort of abstaining antihero with which vampire TV is riddled, mired in undead politics and ghosts of the past and trying to be good. But in “Damage,” series writer Toby Whithouse challenges the limits of viewer sympathy, as Mitchell and vampire friend Daisy react to an attack on Bristol vampires by murdering 20 people in a train car. There’s no rhyme or reason to it—it’s just the sort of thing a monster does, the antihero’s tortured backstory unspooling in reverse—and it rocked Mitchell’s character in the eyes of his soulmates. And Being Human refused to forget it; the aftermath of the Box Tunnel Massacre lingered across the next season, with Mitchell carrying both the guilt from the murders and his new unwanted reputation to his grave.

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The Vampyr: A Soap Opera, TV movie (1992): Trust the BBC to try to have the best of all worlds. For this miniseries, the network drew from Heinrich Marschner’s 1828 German operetta Der Vampyr, an adaptation of Polidori’s gothic take on the monster. Lyricist Charles Hart provided an English translation, and every department store in London must have provided the soap-perfect wardrobe for characters whose places in life were 20th-century perfect: Make way for Ripley the finance vamp, Ginny the model, and Emma, “office executive.” (In case you were concerned it wasn’t edgy enough, there’s also get some operatic nudity.) The settings can skew a bit nouvelle cuisine—the witches have become a demonic art-gallery fixture. But a deeply felt piece, adapted wholeheartedly and unabashedly for its time, tongue in cheek, and utterly over-the-top? It’s what vampire television was born to be.

10 more sets of fangs:

Kolchak, The Night Stalker, “The Vampire” (season one, episode four, 1974): Kolchak spends most of the episode conning a real estate agent into writing his copy for him, but this episode suggested to a new TV generation that vampires worked on the small screen, too. (Though given that he can only kill that vampire by burning an enormous cross on a hillside, this one is something of a time capsule.)

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Vampire Prosecutor, “The Room With The French Dolls” (season one, episode one, 2011): This sleek Korean procedural introduces the prosecutor whose team follows up on a lot of inexplicable leads after he tastes the blood of the deceased. But there’s commentary alongside the shenanigans—vampires with nightclub access drink better quality blood, and the villain’s a socialite using children’s blood to stay young.

Ultraviolet, “Sub Judice” (season one, episode three, 1998): Vampires don’t lend themselves to subtlety, but “vampire” isn’t even spoken in this grimly understated political-allegory series about a Vatican-funded agency that hunts Code Fives. “Sub Judice” involves a widow carrying a vampire baby. But it nimbly navigates the trope, and the deliberately messy episode draws only one conclusion: Anyone caught in the middle of warring ideals is doomed.

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Moonlight, “Fated To Pretend” (season one, episode 13, 2008): Moonlight fell prey to scheduling problems that meant that the intended first-season cliffhanger—vampire PI Mick St. John turns human—became just another back-third twist. In deference to the inevitability of vampire mythos and the necessity of serial storytelling, Mick realizes vampirism isn’t a bell you can unring, and turns again to save his beloved.

Forever Knight, “Blind Faith” (season three, episode five, 1996): An early vamp procedural, Nick Knight used eternal life to solve crime in Toronto. In “Blind Faith,” the show swings for the fences with a policewoman’s vampiric seeing-eye dog. It deals remarkably directly with her disability, even if it’s admittedly hard to separate that from her dog eating criminals. But Forever Night did nothing by halves, dog vampires or otherwise. (By the series finale, every major character would die.)

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Blood Ties, “The Devil You Know” (season two, episode five, 2007): Something of a spiritual successor to Forever Knight, Blood Ties (based on the Tanya Huff novels) features a human as its central PI, but has a vampire in the wings—sexy Tudor Henry Fitzroy. “The Devil You Know” pits him against his sire, Catherine, for an episode about how humanity is a concept, not a commodity. Also, vampires love to kill models.

True Blood, “Cold Ground” (season one, episode six, 2008): Sure, this series (adapted from the Charlaine Harris books) eventually collapsed in on itself, but its first season was gleefully over the top. Besides the markers of mortality versus long life in “Cold Ground,” with Sookie burying her grandmother, the image of Sookie in a white gown racing across the lawn to get some grief sex from Bill is a taste of the Gothic divine.

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Xena: Warrior Princess, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” (season two, episode four, 1996): There’s subtext-as-text, and then there’s Xena. In this 42-minute runaround of network restrictions, Gabrielle hunts for bloodsucking Bacchae and ends up enjoying the company of women a little too much. It includes Xena begging Gabrielle to turn her, and someone asking if you can tell just by looking if a woman’s really a… Bacchae.

Vampire Princess Miyu, “Fragile Armor” (OVA, episode three, 1989): A gorgeous tone poem of animation, this vampire’s more than just a superpowered tween. From the surreal demon dimension to snow refusing to settle on her, Miyu’s suitably uncanny. Of the original run (which surpasses the revival artistically and thematically), this episode lingers on understanding and revenge beneath an ink-cloud sky.

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Kindred: The Embraced, “The Rise And Fall Of Eddie Fiori” (season one, episode six, 1996): This RPG-based soap-and-a-half gave us a vampire mob war, and despite many problems, there was something appealing in its noir signposts and lived-in family entanglements. Though the sheer ’90s-ness of it all tanked in a hurry, this is one of the most deeply vampire TV episodes ever, with blood tears, vampire assassins, star-crossed lovers, rumpled PIs, dirty cops, and a constant state of nightclub.

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