TV Review: NBC's 'Dracula' is a toothless reimagining
"Lacks bite" and "Sucks" would also have been acceptable
[This review is way the heck too long, but I'm writing it on the behalf of Young Daniel, who dressed up as Dracula every Halloween for around 10 years.]
NBC doesn't really know how to explain what "Dracula" is, which explains why they're doing it so poorly.
"The legend takes new life," reads the primary tagline that you might have seen on billboards, buses and on-air promos for the drama, which premieres on Friday (October 25) night.
The tagline across the show's official website takes a different approach and goes with "Jonathan Rhys Myers is America's Original Vampire."
It's much easier to quantify why the latter approach is frustratingly off-base. First of all, NBC should probably know the star of its show spells his last name "Meyers." And that he's Irish. And that he's playing Carpathian in "Dracula." And "Dracula" is based on a book by an author who also happens to be Irish. And "Dracula" was published in 1897, when we all know that Abraham Lincoln was slaying American vampires more than 50 years earlier. And there are four or five other shows on TV featuring vampires who are a good deal more American. Heck, it's even a stretch to call NBC's "Dracula" an American series, given that it's an international co-production filmed far away on The Continent. So yeah, there's really no aspect of that tag line that is accurate. It's a bit astounding. I don't even know what about that banner sentence could possibly be a valuable lure for audiences.
"Jonathan Rhys Myers is America's Original Vampire" is only in that one place, though. [UPDATE: And NBC has corrected the "Myers" typo. This is the largest amount of tangible change I've ever enacted in my time as a critic.]
"The legend takes new life," however, is everywhere.
And I hate to harp on this, but "Dracula" isn't a legend.
There are legends that exist surrounding Vlad III of Wallachia and the Order of the Dragon and whatnot, but those legends mostly require that you care an awful lot about power struggles within the Ottoman Empire and a certain amount of military viciousness, but would probably bore you to tears if you yearn for even rumors of resurrection or post-mortem bloodsucking.
Vlad the Impaler was perhaps a horrifying monster of a certain sort, but the concept of Count Dracula and vampirism and all that good stuff? That's not a legend. That's a piece of fiction that Bram Stoker created. Bram Stoker also created Jonathan Harker, Mina Harker and the idea of Mina as a timeless love for Count Dracula. He created Lucy and Renfield and he created Abraham Van Helsing as well. There is no "legendary" basis for any of that. It's all from a work of credited literature that happens to have moved into the public domain worldwide in 1962 (it was apparently always in the public domain in the United States, if you like irrelevant footnotes). That's why F.W. Murnau's 1922 "Nosferatu," which has many characters and plotpoints in common with "Dracula," but failed to acquire acquire rights to the novel, couldn't actually use the "Dracula" name or any of the names from the book, but why NBC's "Dracula," which shares almost no meaningful connection to Stoker's novel at all, is able to take character names from the novel without taking anything else.
NBC's "Dracula" could, in theory, be construed as giving new life to the legend insofar as it uses Vlad the Impaler as its historical root, but in using characters who were spawned only by Stoker's brain, it loses all credibility to that claim.
A more accurate tagline would be "The scaffolding of Bram Stoker's iconic novel gets knocked down and reappropriated within a very confusing construct that will really confuse anybody who liked the book or most of its adaptations," but that wouldn't hook many viewers. The glory of the public domain is that you can pretty much do whatever you want to to "Dracula" and nobody's allowed to whine. Nobody but me!
Sorry. It's what I do. It's what I did with "Bates Motel" and it's what I would have done on "Sleepy Hollow" and it's probably what I'll continue to do for as long as Hollywood thinks that taking a brand, gutting it and then capitalizing on that brand, despite retaining none of the substance or integrity of the brand, is a viable alternative for originality. It's pretty much all that NBC is doing these days, in fact.
But it's not like this can't be done in ways that are acceptable to me as a critic.
Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore's performances went a long way towards getting me my past my frustration that "Bates Motel" was capitalizing on the branding of "Psycho," while simultaneously pretending that "Psycho" never existed. With some smart writing and directing, "Bates Motel" became a disturbing treat on its own and ratings suggest it got almost no value other than the initial sizzle from aping Hitchcock.
And "Sleepy Hollow" has been one of my pleasant surprises of the fall. It has almost nothing to do with Washington Irving's short story and the show's version of Ichabod Crane shares only a name and one or two biographical details, but zero core characteristics, with Irving's character. However, "Sleepy Hollow" began with a high level of creative inspiration (or at least a high level of inspired "crazy," which isn't quite the same thing) and subsequent episodes have upped the ante with Native American sleep demons, devoted German cultists and a visit to the Lost Colony of Roanoke. "Sleepy Hollow" is good not because it took liberties with a familiar property by Washington Irving. It's good because it's telling a wacky story with flair.
This is my predictably roundabout way of getting to my general thesis about NBC's "Dracula," which is that it annoys me because it uses names and signposts from Bram Stoker's "Dracula" without any real connection to anything in Bram Stoker's "Dracula," but that that is not why it is a bad show. "Sleepy Hollow" and "Bates Motel" both also annoyed me, but were able to brush aside that annoyance by actually being good at what they do. Ultimately, NBC's "Dracula" sullies the "Dracula" name not because of how strictly or loosely it adheres to what I believe to be the values of the property, but rather because of how weirdly and almost inexplicably boring it turns out to be. The legend-that-isn't-a-legend does get new life here, but it's dull and cumbersome life, taking a character who relies heavily on his mystique and replacing that mystique with a motive and methodology that transform him from a character we've seen depicted many times on the big and small screen and shoehorns him into the least imaginative of today's TV archetypes.
Guess what? I'm actually going to get into my review of "Dracula" now.
As freely adapted by Cole Haddon, "Dracula" begins with the bloody exhumation of The Count in Romania in 1881, a scene of intricate and gory regeneration that sets a lurid Hammer-style standard that most of the rest of the series has no interest in aspiring to.
We flash forward a decade and suddenly Dracula has brought himself to London, where he's now posing as American businessman Alexander Grayson, an intentionally broadly played character -- listen to Meyers' accent and try imagining it's Christian Slater and you'll get really confused and distracted -- attempting to ingratiate himself into London high society. Tesla-style, Grayson makes broad proclamations about his approach to alternative energy and gives a demonstration of his "power, drawn from the magnetosphere."
"I trust our little demonstration was illuminating," Grayson says after his magical power source lights up a handful of bulbs.
It's there that you may start going, "Oy. Why am I watching Dracula make power puns?" but things are going to get worse, when it comes to the things Dracula talks about that you've never had an iota of interest in hearing a vampire talk about.
It's not that I require Dracula to talk about the sweet music made by the children of the night or to steadfastly refuse to drink wine or any of the other things that Bram Stoker and Bela Lugosi have made me accustomed to. I just need Dracula to not get really excited about being a majority shareholder in British Imperial Coolant. Dracula just gets really jazzed about reducing our dependence on oil, which makes The Count simultaneously a man ahead of his time and a man whose master plan doesn't interest me in the slightest.
Through five episodes, I don't really get how powerful or not powerful Dracula is. He bursts into flames in the sun -- Bram Stoker's Dracula was only weakened -- but I don't know what other limitations he may or may not have or what his skills are beyond strength, apparently. I don't know if he can hypnotize people, if he can turn into bats or wolves, if he's limited by crosses or by the doorways of unfamiliar houses. And these things seem important to me, because when you're staking your claim -- pun disgustingly intended -- to this familiar turf, establishing the rules of your vampire mythology is one of those things that I'd call nearly essential. Five episodes and I know that Dracula needs to periodically eat a streetwalker, but the degree of his appetites has been a non-factor. It's the unfortunate reality that through five episodes, "Dracula" is barely about Dracula at all. It's mostly about Alexander Grayson and Alexander Grayson is initially amusing because he's being played as a caricature of Victorian perceptions of American identity, but you gradually become more and more aware that Grayson is more than just a feint, he's the guy who too many major characters think Dracula really is. So few people know Dracula as Dracula that we don't know Dracula as Dracula and if I'm watching a show called "Dracula," that's who I want to be getting to know.
Whether he's Dracula or Alexander Grayson, the eponymous character isn't really such a bad guy. Yes, he eats the aforementioned women-of-the-night, but given that this is Victorian England, we know that if Dracula didn't do it, somebody else probably would. By the fifth episode, "Dracula" pretty much wants you to pretend that Dracula isn't a venal and remorseless military leader who butchered his foes and lives off the blood of humans. Instead, he's tortured and deliberate and basically unconnected to his name. The actual villains in this "Dracula" are The Order of the Dragon, an ancient order played by an assortment of familiar faces from British TV. There's Lady Edith's newspaper editor beau! There's Patrick from "Coupling"! Now Dracula is a vampire and he's insanely wealthy and he has speed and physical gifts which, like I've said, we've only barely begun to see, but he's inexplicably made the decision that rather than just going and slaughtering the Order of the Dragon en masse, he'd rather hit them where it truly hurts. Now, again, you're probably thinking, "Isn't the jugular where it truly hurts?" No. Dracula is waging an economic war on the Order, which has become powerful not so much through leading the Crusades or the ongoing "Downton Abbey"-style entrenchment of the British upper class, but rather through their savvy investment in oil interests. The Order of the Dragon may have a kickbutt name, but their only menace comes from the assumption that oil company executives are inherently evil.
So Dracula's plan is to introduce a new energy source that will devalue The Order's oil interests and... Oh Dear God. If you're Dracula and you want to get revenge on people, you make yourself an army of vampires and you tear everybody associated with those people into little bits. Your plan is "Murder, pillage, wipe the blood from my mouth" not "Boy I bet it'll make them disappointed if their stock takes a dip." If your plan takes longer than three days, you're not Dracula. You're Emily Thorne. Or you're Oliver Queen. And "Revenge" wasn't able to sustain its momentum for a full season, while "Arrow" has been able to sustain in large part due to vast reserves of comic book source material.
This pecuniary bloodletting and piecemeal revenge-taking are the stuff of mortals, things people do because they're only one person going against a small legion, or because they fear the repercussions of the human justice system. Dracula is a supernatural being with no regard for mortal morality and yet this version of the story turns him into an indecisive con artist. Dracula doesn't play the long con. He eats people. Or if he's playing the long con, at least he should be doing it with some zest, but Meyers' Count is a low-energy somnambulist relying on stooges to perform tasks that never needed to be performed anyway. This Dracula plays mind games with a paramour because he wants to shatter her confidence. Sorry, but Dracula eats people, he doesn't give them inferiority complexes.
I respect and honor the idea of zigging where audiences expect a story to zag, but if your zig is to have Dracula sitting around in drawing rooms discussing not-even-slightly-hostile takeovers of petroleum companies, rather than seducing people and devouring people, you may have over-zigged.
Strip away the name and this is the story of a man trying to tear apart an oil monopoly, which makes Dracula every bit as scary and sexy as the Sherman Antitrust Act.