Hit or Sh**: Syfy’s VAN HELSING
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
I guess we’re still doing vampires. Syfy has taken it upon itself to beat this dead horse until it breaks down into its base elements (maybe that’s where the “science” comes in?). Not only does VAN HELSING bring all the usual vampire tropes back from the dead, it incorporates all the tired post-apocalypse and zombie tropes too. Top it all off with a Brooding White Guy™ and a Strong Female Protagonist™, and you’ve got yourself a premise blander than room temperature Soylent.
VAN HELSING takes place in the usual hazy post-apocalyptic landscape overrun by ravenous bloodsucking vampires — think 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, not TWILIGHT. Jaded marine Axel (sigh) is sworn to protect the unconscious, underwear-clad Vanessa (sigh). She wakes up with no knowledge of her identity (sigh) other than the existence of her daughter whom she is desperate to locate (sigh). After she wakes up, as luck would have it, she is indestructible and supernaturally impervious to the vampires. Why? She is Vanessa Van Helsing: daughter of the famous vampire hunter (SIGH).
Hello darkness, my old friend…
As much as I try to go into every show with an open mind, I knew there was no earthly way this was going to be very good based on the premise alone. So I found myself pleasantly surprised when there were some aspects that stood out among the slog of complete cliché. VAN HELSING is delightfully blood-splattered with gore levels ranging from disgusting to downright badass. When one of the ragtag group of survivors suffers a fatal vampire bite, her best friend repeatedly bashes her head in with a fire extinguisher while crying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Vanessa gets a cool moment when she takes a steak knife through the hand, then whirls around and knifes a guy in the face with her knife-hand. Pretty neat. By the end of the big battle in the pilot there are literal pools of blood on the floor, streaks of blood from bodies being dragged and tossed in what I can only describe as a laundry chute for corpses, and some characters drenched head-to-toe in blood to the point that they nearly slip and fall. It’s overblown and campy in the best way, which is truly Syfy’s strength.
This show does a solid job of diversity casting. A ragtag group of survivors busts into Axel’s barricaded mental hospital, featuring all ages and backgrounds, up to and including a deaf man who signs to his companions. It’s disappointing that Syfy fell into the trap of the beefy white protagonist, but they certainly get credit for the effort in terms of side characters. However, this praise rides on the fact that I’ve decided to give VAN HELSING the benefit of the doubt for giving the African-American character a spear.
“Is this in poor taste?” -Not The Writers of VAN HELSING
But enough praise — let’s get to the real stuff. You may have noticed that I refer to Axel as the protagonist. Well, despite what the title of this show may lead you to believe, Axel really comes across as the main character of this episode. This isn’t so much due to the fact that Vanessa doesn’t wake up until halfway through the pilot, though that certainly contributes. Axel is simply more interesting as a character than Vanessa. He’s a marine sworn to follow orders no matter what; he won’t even let a survivor back outside to search for his missing wife. Rather than kill his companion-turned-vampire, he keeps her locked up and feeds her with his own blood through an IV. Why? We don’t know yet. The writers build intrigue around him through his character rather than slapping him with some superpowers to force him into “interesting” territory. These choices are reminiscent of a film such as NEIGHBORS 2, in that you can plop some female characters into your story and call it “feminist,” but the writing will always convey your true intentions.
Speaking of which, there’s a whole slew of unforgivable sexist shit in this pilot. First off, as mentioned above, Vanessa is literally unconscious in her underwear for the first half hour of this pilot. She lays out under what appear to be heat lamps, face-up in front of a giant panel of glass. The implication is that Axel is supposed to be watching her, but what else could possibly scream, “Ogle me!”? Once Vanessa wakes up and kicks a little ass, she goes straight to a naked shower scene. This is bad enough, but Axel barges in and says some excuse about how water is “limited” and it makes sense to “double up.” He strips down and gets in the shower with her. When she recoils from him (naturally) he says something to the effect of, “I’ve seen everything you’ve got for the last three months, nothing to hide from me.”
So yeah, I could go on more about about how Vanessa lacks agency and how the pilot means to empower her yet is literally titled “Help Me,” but I don’t really need to, do I?
VAN HELSING is bad. Surprise. Watch TRUE BLOOD instead.
VAN HELSING airs on Fridays on Syfy