A woman sits alone in the Bodleian Library, poring over multiple ancient texts and summoning up even rarer books, including a highly coveted one that’s not been seen for hundreds of years. This young professor is given virtually free rein of one of the world’s oldest research libraries, where she works without interruption, save for a not-so-chance meeting with a very handsome and elegant man, who seems every bit the bibliophile as she. The woman and man, who are dressed in dreamy knits and a leather-elbow tweed jacket, respectively, flirt a little before she insists on going back to her work. A few meaningful looks are exchanged over shoulders before she surrounds herself once more with dusty tomes, her sensible braid resting on her shoulder.
This encounter is the bookworm’s ideal meet-cute (with the possible exception of talking in the reading room), and sets the tone for the library and wainscoting porn that is A Discovery Of Witches, the Sky One series adapted from Deborah Harkness’ bestselling novel of the same title. The woman with the braid and stacks of books is Dr. Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer), a historian and witch who studiously avoids dealing with the latter. Just hours after returning to the University Of Oxford to further her research on alchemy, Diana gets her hands on the Book Of Life, a portentously titled McGuffin that draws all kinds of fantastic creatures to her. Enter Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode), a vampire and geneticist who’s got his own all-consuming work; he’s trying to find out why no new vampires can be made, or “sired.” For that, he needs the Book Of Life, but he’s far from the only interested party. Soon, Diana, who has some understanding of but very little control over her abilities, is at the center of a centuries-old power struggle between vampires, witches, and demons.
Depending on your age or taste in books, the conflicts and characters of A Discovery Of Witches will feel familiar for different reasons. Obviously, if you’ve read the All Souls Trilogy, you know where Harkness, who executive-produces the series with Doctor Who alums Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner, is taking this supernatural romance/fantasy drama. The show’s chosen-one narrative and buildings that have a life of their own will recall for some the Harry Potter franchise, while the burgeoning romance between a brooding vampire and a young woman with her nose in her books is bound to remind others of Twilight. And you won’t need a microscope to see that witch elder Peter Knox (Owen Teale) and Old World bloodsucker Gerbert (Trevor Eve) share DNA with the heavies from True Blood or any of The CW’s vampire shows. The old family names may have changed, but their motives and self-preservation instincts stay the same.
But with its preoccupation with hematology and (forbidden) interspecies love, A Discovery Of Witches most often calls to mind a smarter, gentler Underworld. Just as in that horror franchise, bloodlines are analyzed, a prophecy involving a wolf is espoused, and uneasy alliances are shattered. There’s also the undeniable connection between its two leads, who take turns saving each other in both properties (though Kate Beckinsale’s Selene has racked up more wins). The action in Discovery Of Witches is nowhere near as frenetic or gory, but the ancient enmity between vampires and their supernatural peers will be old hat to anyone who’s gawked at Beckinsale as a Death Dealer in head-to-toe latex.
Which isn’t to say that A Discovery Of Witches’ source material doesn’t offer its own rich story, or opportunities for series writer Kate Brooke to have fun with the world-building. Demons like Agatha (Tanya Moodie), her son Nathaniel (Daniel Ezra), and daughter-in-law Sophie (Aisling Loftus) look human and are a kind of moderating force in the Congregation, a witch-vampire-demon high council of sorts. Moodie, a Sherlock alum, provides a wise and calm center as council member Agatha, who tries to keep the peace even as the more powerful vampires and witches plot to take each other out. But it isn’t until the desperate final hours of the season that the machinations turn from archly delivered threats to something like all-out war. Until then, directors Juan Carlos Medina, Alice Troughton, and Sarah Walker keep us engaged by carefully exploring the Bodleian archives one minute then panning over the misty grounds of a palatial estate in the south of France the next. Their work is equally as gorgeous in Venice, where Eve’s Gerbert schemes while gazing out at the canals.
The key to this first season, which ends with a play straight out of Outlander, is the relationship between Matthew and Diana. Goode is reliably great, playing a world-weary being who realizes he’s falling in love for the first time, his expression changing from haunted to enamored the moment Palmer walks into view. Although the Hacksaw Ridge actor struggles to keep up with most of her co-stars, including Alex Kingston and Valarie Pettiford as her queer aunts/guides to the world of magic, Palmer does have an easy chemistry with Goode. Their shared excitement over every discovery, scientific or otherwise, keeps us invested in the story even when it’s just some carefully worded nonsense. Most important, their relationship is an equitable one, one that’s built on trust, which is far more romantic than a certain sparkly vision that came before it. But neither does the series squander the sparks that fly between its two leads—they might be more mature than Bella and Edward (and a tad stuffier than Selene and Michael), but Diana and Matthew will have you swooning.