It shouldn't immediately be alarming that Let the Right One In — a 2004 novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist previously turned into the 2008 Swedish film of the same name and remade in America as Let Me In (and a pair of plays and a comic series, too) — doesn't seem like a story that could be expanded into a TV series. It's an unnerving, intimate tale of the friendship between a bullied boy and a mysterious new neighbor (seemingly) his age who travels with a middle-aged man, one that doesn't suggest storylines that can be stretched over multiple seasons. But TV history is filled with adaptations that seem like bad ideas that work out anyway. Everything from Fargo to M*A*S*H has raised the question "How does anyone turn that into a TV series?" then provided answers that put the question to rest.
What's is alarming is how quickly Let the Right One In, the new Showtime series created by Andrew Hinderaker (Away), reveals this show doesn't know how to answer the question, grafting elements of the original story onto a crime drama that's in turn grafted onto a science fiction series filled with mad science and bizarre experiments. The result is a show that's functional but never remarkable, a hybrid that lives but never finds a way to thrive.
That's all the more disappointing given the performances at the heart of the show, which give Let the Right One In more compelling moments than the thriller surrounding them. Demián Bichir stars as Mark Kane, who's returning to New York after a considerable absence accompanied by his daughter Eleanor (Madison Taylor Baez). It's not an easy return. For starters, Mark and Eleanor have some peculiar housing requirements, like an apartment that can be completely sealed off from sunlight, preferably one with no window at all to serve as Elli's bedroom (even if it's a bathroom and she has to sleep in the tub). Another requirement: a steady supply of blood, which is part of what brought the pair to New York in the first place. Given the rash of murders in the city, no one's going to think twice about an extra body or two.
Eleanor needs blood, and a steady supply of it, ever since an unfortunate encounter 10 years ago. During that time she hasn't aged, at least on the outside. But flashbacks reveal that there's little left of the bright, happy girl she was. Bichir and Baez are terrific together, playing a father/daughter relationship that's defined by weariness but strong enough to survive a decade of loss and living on the fringes. Baez never tries to make Eleanor lovable. In addition to being, well, a vampire, she's testy and sarcastic. But she's not lost or beyond redemption. In one of the series' best moments, Mark coaxes her outside to rekindle her love of the stars. It's clear why they keep fighting to find a cure and with it a better life. They remain a family, whatever troubles life has thrown their way.
Let the Right One In is just as good in scenes between Eleanor and her new neighbor Isaiah (Ian Foreman), a kid whose intense enthusiasm and complete lack of interest in seeming cool makes him a target for bullies. Foreman plays him with a likable geekiness, the sort of kid who doesn't know how to be anything but nice and gets confused when he encounters meanness. In spite of their differences, Isaiah and Eleanor form an easy, and believable, bond.
Those central relationships give the series a strong core. But, unfortunately, it's a pretty small core. Let the Right One In also spends a lot of time trapped in a crime story focusing on Isaiah's mom, Naomi (Anika Noni Rose, good as always), a homicide detective investigating the string of murders that brought Mark to New York in the first place, and nearly as much on Mark's attempts to revive his career as a haute cuisine chef by reuniting with his former partner. Elsewhere, a young scientist named Claire (Grace Gummer) has to reckon with her father's past peddling addictive painkillers, a practice that might have something to do with her brother, who might not be as dead as she believed.
Gummer gets saddled with some of the show's worst moments via long, exposition-filled exchanges in which she tells characters what happened in the past even though they already know. (The viewers, however, don't.) Her storyline, with its mix of science fiction and horror, recalls The Passage and almost seems to belong to a different series. A later episode brings Claire's troubles and Mark's hunt for a serial killer he believes might be a vampire (and, thus, possibly a cure) together cleverly, but by then Let the Right One In has done little to generate much excitement around either subplot. A standalone origin story episode does little to enrich the main characters' stories, either. Like its source material, it's good at complex relationships between troubled characters, but nothing else really works. It might be possible to convert Let the Right One In, but every addition made here feels unnecessary. In the end, so does the series.
Premieres: Sunday, Oct. 9 at 10/9c on Showtime
Who's in it: Demián Bichir, Anika Noni Rose, Madison Taylor Baez
Who's behind it: Andrew Hinderaker
For fans of: Vampires, young adult stories
How many episodes we watched: 6 out of 10 (five sequential episodes and the standalone seventh episode)