“FROM DUSK TILL DAWN: THE SERIES” (TV Pilot Review)
For many potential viewers, the hardest part of watching FROM DUSK TILL DAWN: THE SERIES will be differentiating it from the feature film that spawned it. But, oddly enough, there’s a sense in executive producer (and pilot director) Robert Rodriguez’s storytelling that he doesn’t necessarily want you to forget the film.
That’s not a matter of the two versions’ themes or story, as they diverge from one another slowly throughout the pilot, which only encompasses the movie’s first five minutes. Rather, the similarities are most apparent in the performances—perhaps a result of Rodriguez’s desire to keep the characters, written for the big screen by Quentin Tarantino, as close to their original incarnations as possible.
That’s not to imply that the performances are weak by any measure; in fact, the cast is largely impressive so far. But in creating a series that’s meant to be the flagship of the budding El Rey Network, Rodriguez knows the importance of brand appeal, and refuses to deviate too far from the heroes and villains FROM DUSK TILL DAWN fans know and love. Case in point: D.J. Cotrona, a massively charismatic and confident performer who breathes new life into Seth Gecko, yet also feels firmly planted within George Clooney’s take on the character. From his body language to his vernacular, Cotrona does his best Clooney impression and succeeds at almost every turn, save for the less-than-stellar emotional frustration toward his brother Richie that Clooney handled effortlessly.
The same goes for Don Johnson as Sheriff Earl McGraw, who does merely a small variation on the role Michael Parks made his own. Johnson’s McGraw may express a bit more venom in his sentiments toward the Gecko brothers, but in doing so, he loses much of the nuance and humility Parks brought to his brief but memorable scene in the film. Aside from that, Johnson’s gruff scowl and casual menace reek of Parks, whether the veteran actor intends it or not. Rodriguez also, disappointingly, plays close to the feature with that character, although the pilot’s unconventional relationship with time seems to allow for McGraw to appear further down the line if need be.
Perhaps the series’ true departure point comes in the form of Richie Gecko, played by Zane Holtz, who buries himself in the role’s problematic schizophrenia. Holtz is convincing as a psycho, especially in his cold, quiet moments, but his performance is distracted, as if he’s focusing too hard on Richie’s violent side to properly embody his hypersexual and impulsive sides. Luckily, Holtz separates himself the most from Tarantino’s big-screen portrayal, and a most intriguing aspect is added to his psychosis in the show as well. Lane Garrison also appears in the pilot as a more understated version of Pete, John Hawkes’ liquor-store clerk from the movie, and Wilmer Valderrama dips in and out as Don Carlos, a villainous (and likely vampiric) twist on Cheech Marin’s third-act part in the film, but the changes aren’t important enough at this point to truly alter the perspective on those characters.
To longtime fans, the elephant in the room will be the inclusion of an all-new character, Texas Ranger Freddie Gonzalez, played by Jesse Garcia. The potential catalyst for the bulk of the series’ action, Garcia seems unclear about his character’s direction, portraying him as bumbling, intimidating, loyal and meek simultaneously in this first hour’s introduction. Whether this is an active choice to humanize the character is almost irrelevant, as the result paints McGraw’s partner as too dimwitted to be a formidable foe for the Gecko brothers. Garcia is surely an able performer, but Gonzalez comes of as almost an afterthought in the pilot, between his weak dialogue and inconsistent development.
Outside of the performances, Rodriguez pulls no punches, granting the series appropriately cinematic production values by the way of his trademark saturated visuals. He plants the seeds for a complex first season within the opener, changing the vampires from batlike to snakelike and offering various hints of their mythology from the opening scene forward. The pacing of the storytelling never feels like Rodriguez is stretching for material, nor are his writers looking to perfectly imitate Tarantino’s style, which may be the series’ saving grace. Devotees of the film may also be excited to hear that Rodriguez has a fair amount of practical FX and creature makeup on hand to counteract some of the shoddy but ultimately necessary digital work.
In the end, though, the narrative similarities between FROM DUSK TILL DAWN’s television adaptation and theatrical source do rob the audience of a crucial aspect of genre TV: unpredictability. There are very few surprises within the pilot, which is unfortunate, because one can only assume there will be many future familiarities as well. Horror shows such as THE WALKING DEAD and AMERICAN HORROR STORY thrive on unpredictability, whether it be dispatching beloved cast members at a moment’s notice or throwing a narrative curveball into the terrifying subject matter. Without that aspect, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN: THE SERIES runs the risk of losing the danger of its predecessor and removing the emotional stakes for certain characters virtually altogether.
To its credit, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN: THE SERIES remains entertaining, and Rodriguez’s pilot is interesting enough to warrant watching further episodes. Even in its repetitious nature, the show has a comforting aura of confidence, and hopefully, the committed and occasionally captivating performances by Cotrona and Holtz will only get stronger as the show steers further away from its source material. And lest anyone think the relatively short-on-violence debut episode means the series won’t live up to the brutality of its prime-time cable brethren, think again, as Rodriguez promised in a post-show Q&A at assorted Alamo Drafthouse theaters that insanity will reign by episode seven, directed by none other than Fede Alvarez of the EVIL DEAD remake.