Despite telling a familiar story, the TV reboot of Robert Rodriguez’s big screen thriller feels fresh and fun.
I remember cringing the first time D.J. Cotrona pointed a gun in my face and said, “Everybody be cool. You, be cool” in a promo for El Rey’s From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series. My gut reaction was to dismiss Cotrona and the series — based on filmmaker Robert Rodriguez’s ’90s horror thriller — simply because, well, hadn’t I seen this all before? And didn’t it look a lot better the first time around?
That classic “Be cool” line belonged to my favorite movie star, George Clooney, not some skinny, Caesar cut-sporting kid named “D.J.” Clooney proved his movie star chops by playing hard-drinking vampire killer Seth Gecko in From Dusk Till Dawn the movie. He poured a perfect mix of dry gin and grilled cheese all over that and other quotable lines in Rodriguez’s awesome pulpy, gore-drenched B flick, scripted by Quentin Tarantino. Now, twenty years later, Rodriguez was asking me to accept a new Seth Gecko in a serialized TV version of FDTD.
It’s hard to resist the series’ tense but winking tone, which lands somewhere between the silly, so-bad-it’s-good camp of ‘Arrow’ and the dark purple opera of ‘Hannibal.’
I was more than a little skeptical. Not only because Cotrona, despite solid efforts, can’t match Clooney’s cool, but also because the early teasers made From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series look like a cheap and lazy retread. But we’re halfway through the first season now, and I’m happy to write that FDTD: The Series has proven that it’s more than a low rent rehash of the original movie. The series is a surprisingly fun, violent and weird little thriller, sporting just enough fresh quirks and charms (and blood) to distinguish itself from the film. Those who’ve opted to join the new Gecko brothers for their wild ride are no doubt digging the series’ supercharged supernatural element, plus its grindhouse edge and beefed-up character arcs. The struggle the show now faces is convincing those who haven’t tuned in that there’s enough cool new stuff here worthy of a season-long (or more) commitment.
Climbing over that hill is going to be tough. While FDTD: TS boasts its own unique shitkicker personality, the series is largely retelling the original film’s story instead of spinning a new yarn. This version also follows two bank robbing brothers on the run from the law who take a family hostage and wind up battling vampires in a Mexican strip joint. That mostly kills the element of surprise and a lot of the potential for dramatic tension, because if you’ve seen the film, you know what’s coming. The decision to follow the movie’s course also makes the show look terribly out of step with the current wave of popular film-to-TV projects, like FX’s Fargo redo. The Fargo TV show eschews the original film’s story in favor of a new twisted tale, with new characters, that recalls the original’s dark and quirky spirit. And Fargo is amassing praise from critics and fans of the film who appreciate the fresh approach. Same goes for Bates Motel and Hannibal, two shows that quickly found an audience and transcended the “TV prequel” label by telling unpredictable new stories set in the same thematic worlds as their cinematic predecessors.
While Fargo, Bates Motel, and Hannibal boldly color outside the lines, FDTD: TS is happy to retrace the broad strokes of a story that’s already been told. But just because the show isn’t exactly innovating doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching. There are plenty of reasons why fans of FDTD the movie and especially those new to the franchise, should give the series a shot. For one, not only does it have Rodriguez’s blessing, it’s got his talent. Like most projects he’s associated with, the filmmaker’s fingerprints are all over this series. He’s directing episodes, writing scripts, and hand-picking cast members, locations, and behind-the-lens collaborators. I get that Rodriguez’s all-in approach might actually keep some viewers away (I saw Machete Kills too, you know); but as I mentioned in my premiere review, returning to FDTD seems to have rejuvenated his creativity behind the camera. The series is easily the most visually sophisticated thing he’s done in years. The production values, cinematography, and horror effects are all cinema-worthy. Simply put, the show looks gorgeous. The fact that FDTD: TS impresses on a technical level matters, arguably more than it does for many other shows, because it’s one of the elements we can count on to be different from the movie.
Another element we can count on to be different, casting, is a mixed bag. Cotrona’s spot-on Clooney-isms are slowly winning me over every week, and many of the other new faces filling familiar roles — especially Zane Holtz (Richie Gecko), Robert Patrick (Jacob Fuller), and Madison Davenport (Kate Fuller) — are doing a great job fleshing out their characters and making them stand apart from the movie versions. And even if a few key roles seem oddly miscast (Nerdy Jake Busey subbing for Tom Savini as Sex Machine? Wilmer Valderrama as evil gangster Carlos?), everyone on the show seems to be having a blast. That fun, sometimes over-the-top grindhouse vibe the cast brings to every scene makes FDTD: TS one of the most entertaining genre series on TV, even when it’s not firing on all cylinders.
It’s hard to resist the series’ tense but winking tone, which lands somewhere between the silly, so-bad-it’s-good camp of Arrow and the dark purple opera of Hannibal. Take the arc of Texas Ranger Freddie Gonzalez (Jesse Garcia). His journey is dark and heavy and full of frightening encounters with bad guys carrying guns and scary monsters sporting fangs, not to mention a heavy dose of self-doubt. But Gonzalez’s story is also packed with ridiculous, fist-pumping hero moments straight out of a ’70s action movie. One minute, he’s a tortured champion with too soft a soul to survive in the Titty Twister — a ghoulish Mexican strip club that dubs as a dangerous vampire nest — and the next he’s a vamp-slaying badass with a taste for blood. That these shifts in tone don’t feel jarring is something of a miracle, or at least a really good trick.
Gonzalez is one of the few major characters without a counterpart in the film. He brings a much needed dose of soul and humanity to the table, and he also gives viewers a clear good guy to root for. Gonzalez’s flashback chats with his mentor, Don Johnson’s Earl McGraw, are at once heartwarming in sentiment and gruff in execution, and they’re always a joy to watch. The fact that the now grizzled Johnson excels at playing broken hero types helps in that regard.
Gonzalez is the second most interesting character on the show right behind Richie Gecko, a violent, brain-addled killer who was originally played by Tarantino in the movie. Much of the credit for Richie’s appeal should go to Holtz, who’s turning in a terrific nuanced performance (light years beyond what Tarantino achieved in the film). The show wisely bumps up the dramatic stakes, and the creep factor, by tying Richie’s madness to the supernatural vampire business that’s going on in Mexico, nicely stitching the Gecko’s fate to that of the Mexican vampires — a huge departure from the film. As the series goes on, it’s starting to add new and interesting layers and character arcs to the story we think we know, building on the film’s outline and crafting a deeper, and sometimes weirder and darker viewing experience.
Listen, this thing aint high art, and it’s never gonna be. But if Rodriguez and the folks at his new El Rey cable network set out to make a highly entertaining, expertly shot grindhouse TV show, well, I’d say they’ve pretty much hit their mark. From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series isn’t for everyone, but it’s one of the least bland and most engaging new genre series on TV. This strange, sometimes uproarious, always trashy series has a big personality, and you can’t say that about most shows on the air right now.
(Photos: El Rey Network)