'Moonlight' Needs More Bloodsucking, Less Crime-Fighting

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2007

What a freak show prime time has become. You've got your satanic messenger boys, your time-traveling sad sacks, your psycho chefs, homicidal housewives, superhero slackers, crazed sugar magnates, fox-trotting has-beens and, oh yes, a town populated and governed entirely by kiddies.

Adding a crime-solving vampire to this mix isn't exactly cataclysmic.

He's not your everyday, garden-variety vampire-next-door. Mick St. John, the bloodsucking hero of the new CBS drama "Moonlight," announces in a long stretch of pedantic exposition that he doesn't bite people's necks "unless they really ask for it." He sleeps not in a cobwebby old coffin but in a sleek and sanitary-looking freezer, and he can't be killed with a wooden stake through the heart, although a flamethrower might do the trick. Nice touch: When smashed in the face with a broken bottle, St. John merely utters a mild-mannered "Ouch."

"Being a vampire sucks," he says into the camera as the series, premiering tonight on CBS, begins. "It's a bad joke, I know, but it's the truth." And yet does St. John seem to enjoy his affliction? Since he scrupulously avoids sinking his choppers into veins and arteries, he has to retrieve his blood supply from his version of a drug dealer -- a friend at the local morgue with plenty of hemoglobin to spare.

The most disappointing thing about this sanguinary pretty boy is that show creators Trevor Munson and Ron Koslow decided to make him a private eye. Oh, jeez, another one? And that means yet more murders and the solving thereof on what's clearly become the Criminal Broadcasting System, all crime all the time. When the narration changes from vampirical studies ("when you live forever, the past always catches up with you") to private-eye cliches ("a murderer was loose in the city"), one's heart may sink. The producers appear eager to avoid what makes their show unique.

Alex O'Loughlin makes an ingratiating Everyguy out of St. John, managing to bring something fresh to a role whose origins go back a million years or so. Sophia Myles is agreeably spirited and spunky as Beth Turner, a reporter for a Web site, albeit a very well equipped one. But the sneaky standout in the cast, and something of a scene-stealer, is boyish Jason Dohring as Josef, a very rich and powerful vampire, "400 going on 30," who's as ruthless and pushy as St. John is calm and contemplative.

On the phone with a colleague of sorts, Josef threatens, "You screw me and I will personally come down there and cut your heart out, okay?" (Presumably the person on the other end of the line says "Okay" back.) St. John, meanwhile, is not always a pussycat. He can rise to the occasion if provoked, baring fangs and going oogly in the eyes while hurling bad guys into walls. In the premiere, he is quite provoked indeed when Turner tumbles into the clutches of a professor of vampirism, whose interest in her goes well beyond the academic.

The show builds to a breathless race-to-the-rescue that's so old-fashioned it's fun, even exciting.

"We are all vampires, every last one of us," the professor said earlier in a classroom, making fancy talk about metaphors and symbols and a Lithuanian vampire god. "The thirst for blood is symbolic of a deeper hunger," he explains, and somehow he relates that to a universal human desire to return to the womb, "that perfect world of blood and guts."

Deep, isn't it? Sort of?

Many a movie has had its blood and drunk it, too, by making vampirism a metaphor for something else. The "Blade" pictures, starring Wesley Snipes, envision a whole subculture of vampires infiltrating the worlds of business and politics; "Moonlight" seems to be going in that same general direction. It doesn't go quite far enough into uncharted territory but gets off to a basically promising start nonetheless, and executive producer Joel Silver (of "Lethal Weapon" and "Die Hard" fame) has seen to it that the show has a classy, snazzy surface.

That title, however, is limp. By mistake I've been calling the show "Mr. Midnight," but even that error is better than the actual title.

Whatever it's called, "Moonlight" should try to cure its split personality and the producers should decide whether they are doing a vampire show or a detective show. As there've been far too many of the latter, here's one vote for the former, and for bite over bark.

Moonlight (one hour) premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 9.

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