From Dusk Till Dawn Season 1 Review “Mistress”

Hello, and welcome aboard to my review of the television series based on “From Dusk Till Dawn.” I’m a huge fan of co-creators Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, and have seen everything the former has done (even the TV stuff) and most of the latter’s work as well, save some of his more kid-driven stuff. The original “FDTD” movie is one of my favorites of both concerned, and I had the good fortune to see it in the theater with a packed-out audience back in the day. With its twisty narrative, ever-quotable dialogue and action-packed set-pieces, it played like gangbusters to the sold out crowd and remains one of the most fun times I ever had at the movies. The question was, how would the series version stack up?

Thus far, the answer is: pretty good. Having just binge-watched the first three episodes, I can say that they’ve done a decent job stretching out the narrative to what amounts to a mini-series form. If the first few episodes are any indication, I would assume that the first season will cover most, if not all, of the events of the original movie, and, if successful, likely continue beyond that for any future seasons. Of course, in order to do that, they’ve had to expand certain elements considerably, but that’s to be expected. So, the next question is: does it feel necessary or superfluous at best?

Well, yes and no, if I’m being honest. On the one hand, it was a hoot to see Don Johnson take the Earl McGraw character-formerly played by the exemplary Michael Parks in several movies to date (also including the “Grindhouse” and “Kill Bill” flicks)- and put his own stamp on it. Chewing scenery like it was going out of style, Johnson showed this cast of mostly new faces how it’s done, and then some. I, for one, hated to see him go, even if it was inevitable, and necessary, in order to give new character Freddie Gonzalez (Jesse Garcia, who’s had countless bit parts in movies and TV shows like “The Avengers” and “The Shield”) some narrative drive.

Another vet doing solid work is Robert Patrick, of “T2” and “True Blood” fame, in the role of fallen preacher Jacob, originally played by Harvey Keitel. His take on the role veers a little more in the direction of realism than Keitel’s more humorous take, which I don’t mind, even if it might rob us of some of that actor’s funnier moments later on, i.e. the “I’m a mean, mhm mhm servant of God” line. Still, Patrick was in one of the “FDTD” sequels, “Texas Blood Money” and he slips into this role just fine, I thought. Besides, it’s still too early on to say whether or not his take will be entirely humorless, so I’m willing to give him- and the show- the benefit of the doubt on that one.

On the newer faces front, I already liked Madison Davenport from a few things I’d seen her in, notably the horror movie “The Possession,” and great work on TV’s “Save Me,” “Shameless” and especially her memorable turn as a child killer on “CSI.” (That would be a child who was the killer, not a person who killed children, for the record.) She’s great here, and her turn is much more effective than Juliette Lewis in the original film, not because Lewis isn’t a great actress, but because at 23, she always seemed a bit too old for the part.

But I guess that depends on your willingness to accept that sort of thing, of which the original “FDTD” is hardly the only offender in that department. For the record, I thought Lewis was decent, but the only time I was really convinced she was for real was when she was acting as Richie’s hallucination, so there you go. She’s way more effective as a nut-job in the Tarantino-derived “Natural Born Killers,” which I loved her in, and is possibly my favorite thing she’s ever done.

Davenport, though, feels much more authentic as a teen, no doubt because she actually is one. I think this will make scenes that were played for laughs in the original much more dark and unsettling, and that will undeniably work in the show’s favor. Further, Davenport has already shown in her previous work that she has the acting chops to handle some dramatic heavy lifting, which bodes well for her impending run-ins with Richie later on.

One thing this show is already doing better than the original is establishing tone. The dramatic/action scenes and the comedic stuff are much more naturally separated here, and though the script may lack that Tarantino verve and snap, as knock-off QT goes, it’s not bad. You’ve got your film references (Burt Reynolds and “Sharky’s Machine”), old-school cartoons on the TV, and lo and behold, we get our first glance of the fabled Big Kahuna burger joint referenced in many of the man’s previous work, plus a faux ad to boot. Sure, Kevin Smith has been there, done that, with Mooby’s, but it was still a fun bit of business here.

On the negative side, some of the acting was better than others, with a few somewhat shaky performances here and there. D.J. Cotrona, of “GI Joe: Retaliation” and “Dear John,” is no George Clooney, but then again, who is? I just don’t know if I completely buy him as the bad-ass he’s supposed to be, and if it was a bit of a stretch for Clooney as well, he at least was charming enough to make you forgive it. Cotrona is not an unattractive man in his own right, but he lacks the gravitas of a Clooney. At least so far, but we’ll see.

Faring slightly better is Zane Holtz, formerly of TV’s “Make it or Break It” and featured in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Grace Unplugged.” Stepping into the role played by QT himself, he does a pretty decent job of shifting back and forth from nerdy egghead type to a hallucinating psycho whack job that could kill at the drop of a hat. Sure, one could point out that QT isn’t exactly famed for his acting prowess, but this was one of his better roles (if not his best), and he left an undeniable stamp on it. Holtz wisely takes the humor out of QT’s original character and plays it straight, making for an occasionally unnerving performance, especially when he goes into hallucination mode.

From there, it’s all pretty hit or miss. The jury’s still out on Scott (Brandon Soo Hoo) and Vanessa (Adrianne Palicki, also of “GI Joe” and “Friday Night Lights”), but the latter’s performance was a bit too broad for my tastes- no pun intended- and I’m extremely on the fence about Wilder Valderrama as the drug kingpin Carlos. I mean, really? Yes, it’s been a while since “That 70’s Show” and it’s nice to see a Latino-heavy cast, to be sure, but they couldn’t have gone a little more heavyweight with it? I’d say Demián Bichir, of “Machete Kills,” but he’s got “The Bridge” already, so I don’t know, maybe Edward James Olmos? Or even “Machete” himself, Danny Trejo? But Fez? Um, no. I just can’t.

In terms of expanding the plot, I like the way they’ve done that quite a bit. It’s a tricky bit of business to expand something movie-length to an entire series, and so far, the way they’ve done it is almost akin to DVD chapters. Episode 1 was the liquor store muck-up; Episode 2 dealt with the introduction of the Fuller family, with some flashbacks to the bank heist only alluded to in the film, and the resulting kidnapped teller; and Episode 3 dealt with Richie’s interlude with and killing of the teller, with some much more elaborate back-story involving Seth’s ex-wife and co-conspirator, Vanessa, as well as Freddie getting the skinny on the cartel/blood cult that Carlos belongs to.

Though some new elements worked better than others (blood cult stuff & Fuller family drama=good; Vanessa & Freddie stuff not cult-related=meh), overall, “From Dusk Till Dawn” is no embarrassment, as of yet. With Rodriguez himself at the helm of the first two episodes, they both moved along at a nice clip, and the third episode, directed by Eduardo Sanchez, of “The Blair Witch Project” fame, ably aped RR’s style effectively.

Script-wise, it’s no QT, that’s for sure, but it’s not so far off the mark that reads as a desperate rip-off, either. The requisite pop culture references are maybe trying a bit too hard to spell things out for the less savvy viewers (i.e. the Reynolds bit), but maybe not as necessary as the writers might think. I mean, I was fine with the Big Kahuna bits, which only QT fans are gonna get, anyway. You don’t necessarily need the other stuff, but if I were them, I’d go deep or go home. Let the film geeks get what they’re gonna get instead of spending several lines of dialogue explaining what the reference is, in other words.

Obviously, it’s too late to do anything about the casting, but some shows- and actors- take a little time to sink into things. “Seinfeld” and “Buffy” and plenty more where that came from took a while to get going, too. Sometimes it pays to have a little patience in these things, and hope for the best. Let the actors and the show find their way as they go along, as it were. That said, I do think the idea is worthwhile, and that the show has already gone a long way towards justifying its existence, and that’s a good thing, because it could well have been a train wreck.

In future reviews, I’ll get more into plot elements and what I like and don’t like about the expansion of the show vs. the movie, as well as what I think of the show’s mythology and season arc, but we’ll leave things be for the moment, and just say that you’ve got my attention, “From Dusk Till Dawn.” Now try and maintain it.

What did you think of “From Dusk Till Dawn” so far? Did you like the new cast? Who is your favorite of the new actors? Who’s your least favorite? What did you think of the way they tweaked the storyline thus far? Which element do you think was the weakest? Which was the strongest? What was your favorite moment (or moments) so far? Do you think the show will go beyond the movie this season, or stop at the end of the movie? Let me know what you think, and see you next week!