Kindred: The Embraced – The Vampire: The Masquerade TV Show That Ended Too Soon

How can you adapt Vampire: The Masquerade for television? Answer: not successfully.

Kindred The Embraced
Kindred The Embraced

Kindred: The Embraced is a television show that is loosely – very loosely in some instances – based on the second edition of the pen-and-paper game Vampire: The Masquerade. As an adaptation, it comes close to succeeding with its depictions of undead conflict, the natural politics that come from having immortal factions, and a bit of character development that leads to allies butting heads, as well as the romance across enemy lines. All of this offered the writers a huge playground for their work, but somehow, the show perished quicker than a neonate’s dreams of power.

Kindred: The Embraced is a cult classic, which many of its fans and even those who worked on the show insist was “ahead of its time” with the type of stories it wanted to share. Those who know of its existence tell its tales, keeping it alive, and are dedicated to gathering as much about the program as they can. It helped that the show had a strong home video release and was re-aired on the Sci-Fi Channel, but its connection to Vampire: The Masquerade can’t be understated.

John Leekley is often listed as the creator of Kindred: The Embraced, but that feels like an odd title when so much of it was taken from an established IP. He has, however, made it clear that he chose the things he wanted from White Wolf’s established world and changed it to create the vampire story he envisioned, having been given a picture to color but never intending to stay within the lines.

Fans of the books will hear many familiar names, terms, and pick up on the concepts easily, but the rules were changed for the medium, the budget, and to bring in a bit more drama.

Represented in the show are five of the main seven Camarilla clans: Ventrue, Gangrel, Brujah, Toreador, and Nosferatu, with a guest appearance by an Assamite and one character who was believed to be Malkavian in the scripting process but changed to one of the established bloodlines for simplicity. If rumors are to be believed, the intent was to eventually bring in the Tremere clan as a larger set of antagonists.

The clans that are there, however, don’t act the way most would expect: each kindred has access to almost every power of the blood, and their bodies work differently than the source material lays out, but some of this can be explained away or forgiven. However, these issues combined with the small plot holes that pop up here and there may be annoying for some viewers.

Kindred: TE does put an important part of Vampire: The Masquerade – the Masquerade itself – upfront and center for their society, emphasizing what violations of their secrecy laws can mean. The Masquerade is the set of rules that help Kindred keep themselves hidden from humans, ensuring their safety from pesky things like an Inquisition. We get to see how some members of the city try to use the laws each kindred follows as a tool or weapon against others, creating an environment that feels like it captures that Vampire: The Masquerade social maneuvering we all love.

But as the episodes progress, these rules seem to apply to the main characters less and less. There also isn’t a deep dive into enough of the clan’s interpersonal politics, the struggle of the individual vampire throughout the night, those moments of personal horror, or some of the long-term plans many of the Kindred put their efforts into (with a small exception to the last episode). Of all the things that are missing from the source material, it isn’t the rules or mechanics that hurt the show, but the need to add in traditional television formulas and tropes into the type of in-depth stories Vampire: The Masquerade wants to tell.

There are some good actors here, a few notable names, and a lot of recognizable faces from that era of television. Many of these are talented people who’re hamming it up just a bit too much in parts, or are made to look ridiculous by scripted overreactions and cheesy one-liners. The pilot episode focuses on Frank Kohanek, a mortal detective played by C. Thomas Howell who made the mistake of falling in love with a vampire, only to watch her die and be thrust into the world of the Kindred. The show soon began to focus more on Julian Luna, Prince of the city, played by the charismatic and beguiling Mark Frankel. Whereas Kohanek’s story came across as fairly cliche, Julian’s life and purpose is much deeper and a more interesting look at the environment the showrunners had forged.

As the vampire leader of San Francisco, Julian must maintain the peace between the clans, keep an eye on his enemies, protect his family, and deal with outside threats, all while trying to maintain his own love life. This actor, character, and the threads that all tied back to him were the reasons to watch the show. The stories shown gave detail and nuance to the position an active Prince was put in and how difficult holding a city together could be, especially when they don’t delegate more often.

Kindred: The Embraced encapsulated the drama between the clans, as well as with mortals and other vampires when it came to matters of passion. None of this will surprise those who noticed the Spelling Television logo at the beginning, the company that also created Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place – indeed, many critics described Kindred: The Embraced as Melrose Place with supernatural elements. This was furthered by the addition of Kelly Rutherford, who was also starring on Melrose Place, brought in after the pilot episode to play love interest Caitlin Byrne.

Some critics likened certain components of the vampire life and Julian Luna’s role as Prince to that of the Godfather, but a stronger comparison after the show’s run was to call it a grown-up version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Most believed that Kindred: The Embraced found that right level of soap opera style melodrama to mix with its action and political intrigue, but others claimed it leaned too heavily into that.

It also lacked much of what the teenage audience (especially girls) could latch onto. The show hadn’t quite found a tone to fully seize and the showrunners were told it could be sexy and scenes could be bloody – but not too much, and never both at the same time. Leekley has said that there were simply more rules to consider back then which kept them from producing the show the way they wanted to.

Kindred: The Embraced looked regal and particularly moody when it needed to, delivering on the visuals for its time, but some close inspection will show a few mistakes, a couple of boom mics in the scene, and knowing now that it was shot quickly and on a lower budget as a replacement program has certain aspects making more sense. Having the vampires being able to go out in the sun not only helps with options for the scripts, but cuts costs so that not every interaction has to be shot at night.

Some of the lighting choices in a few scenes helped make the show stand out and many sets were purposefully kept darker. Artwork from the V:TM books was used in a couple of places and Jeff Kober’s character, the Nosferatu Primogen Daedalus, did several paintings, which were actually painted by Kober himself. The audio is decent, but keen listeners will spot tracks from Dracula (1992) and Interview with the Vampire in the pilot episode, which fit the genre, but were incredibly distracting, being highly recognizable and overly dramatic for some scenes.

In 1996 when Kindred: The Embraced debuted, FOX was trying a few new risky programs, putting it alongside shows like Profit – where the main character was sleeping his way to the top, living in a cardboard box, and having sex with his nemesis, who was also his mother – but they quickly pulled back on almost all of their projects with heavy science fiction or supernatural themes.

Kindred: The Embraced only ran for eight episodes – and although the pilot had strong ratings, some episodes did flounder. Although many fans seemed to enjoy the plots for individual episodes, the show feels disjointed as a whole. Bouncing between characters and various threads is essential, but the stories don’t often feel like they feed into the center narrative enough. Many of the people who worked on the show believe that it came about too early and that waiting, or perhaps even finding a different network, would have given it more life and allowed them to tell the stories the way they wanted, and in a form that would link the overarching plot together more.

After premiering in April of 1996, the show was canceled in May, but a mixture of fan outcry and interest from other networks looked like it might breathe a bit more life into the show. Tragedy struck, however, in September of that same year, when actor Mark Frankel died in a motorcycle accident, effectively sealing the show’s fate.

An old AOL chat interview and rumblings from those who worked on the show suggest that planning on episodes for season two had already begun, but it is also believed that the episode “Skull” was intended to be part of season one originally and then moved to the second season. In the DVD commentary, Leekley mentions that work on that particular story had already begun when the show was put on hiatus.

Some industry insiders do feel that Kindred: The Embraced’s death allowed FOX to put more effort into Buffy, making sure that at least one show featuring vampires prospered. The show’s fan base grew without it even being on the air and many of them have remained loyal to this day. The only show that was doing this better at the time, with vampires as the main protagonists, was Forever Knight, but Kindred: The Embraced had a ton of potential. It may have just needed more episodes to grow.

Thankfully, the show isn’t hard to find on DVD and there’s even a version that comes with The Book of Nod, a Vampire: The Masquerade supplement. This special edition re-release of the episodes also offered fans a bit more of the story. Alongside deleted scenes and interviews, Jeff Kobler reprises his role as Daedalus, giving his last will and testament, throwing around several terms from the source books, as well as a bit of closure to the story.

No fans of the show would be faulted for thinking that this new attention to Kindred: The Embraced in 2013 may have been gaging interest in a reboot of the show, or a similar program based on Vampire: The Masquerade, but so far that hasn’t happened. But that doesn’t mean we’ve given up hope, and this is still a blast to pop in and relive, even if it isn’t the most useful tool for learning the role-playing system.

READ MORE: The History of the Vampire: The Masquerade Video Games

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