TV Review: NBC's 'Dracula' is a toothless reimagining
"Lacks bite" and "Sucks" would also have been acceptable
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Periodically "Dracula" teases us with action scenes that are fleetingly fun. There's a good rooftop fight in the first episode. There's a rather badass fight scene in the London Tube featuring straight-out-of-steampunk huntress Jane (Victoria Smurfit). There's a sex scene that's intercut with an underground female fight club that's appropriately audacious in its silliness. There's strange stuff involving drugged-out seers who are being used as human GPS to track down vampires. But in five episodes, I can't think of more than this handful of scenes that I found satisfying.
Of course, I look to vampire fiction to be scary and disturbing, the stuff of nightmares. That's me. I read "Salem's Lot" because it gave me nightmares, not because of the will-they/won't-they sexual tension between Kurt Barlow and Richard Straker. In our post-Anne Rice world, I understand that many, many viewers put up with the fangs and neck-nibbling and staking because they enjoy the idea of timeless, eternal love. That NBC's "Dracula" accentuates this aspect of Dracula's character is the very opposite of zigging where a zag is expected. Francis Ford Coppola's "Dracula" transformed the source material into a love story and vampire/human lust-triangles are basically all you get out of vampire fiction these days, whether you're talking "Twilight" or "True Blood" or "Vampire Diaries."
And it happens that "yearning" is the most powerful weapon in Jonathan Rhys Meyers's somewhat limited acting arsenal, yearning and shouting. Even when he was threatening to cut people's heads off (or actually doing it) in "The Tudors," Meyers consistently came across as more petulant than intimidating, which was a limiting factor when it comes to the King of England and an even more limiting factor when it comes to Dracula. Meyers makes Dracula a wimpy stalker, leering at Jessica De Gouw's Mina, but never giving her any reason to be entranced by him, other than that the alternative is Oliver Jackson-Cohen's Harker.
It's hard to find a version of "Dracula" in which Harker doesn't suck, but his weakness is generally attributed to Dracula's powers or to the three sexy women in Dracula's basement. Here, Dracula lacks the comely concubines and he may or may not have the hypnotic powers, but he's able to make Harker look like a spineless tool by appealing to his desire for upward mobility which is, once again, just about the least "Dracula" thing ever. So if Mina is becoming interested in Alexander Grayson, it's because he boyfriend is a pill, not because Dracula has gravity and past lives in his favor. For viewers who don't care about anything other than Meyers' dreaminess, none of this will be a problem, but if you're not in the actor's sway, the inevitability of this love only undermines attempts to make Mina feisty and progressive.
Too often, what counts as reinterpretation in this "Dracula" is removing what was once identifiable about characters and undermining them. What is Van Helsing without the crazed, single-minded pursuit of vampires? In Thomas Kretschmann's hands, he's just a handsome med school professor. What does Lucy have to do if she isn't a slowly drained blood bank? In Katie McGrath's hands, she's a very attractive cipher with almost no additional characteristics. Why do we need characters named Harker and Mina and Lucy and Van Helsing if this is what we're doing with them? I don't know.
The character who benefits most from reimagining is Nonso Anozie's Renfield. I love a good cockroach-eating, asylum-plucked Renfield as much as the next "Dracula" fan, but this version is capable, intelligent and genteel, not quite a match for Dracula, but not a Peter Lorre-voiced puppet either. If you stick around til the fifth episode, you even get a little Renfield backstory.
If I'm listing things in the "positives" category, "Dracula" was shot in Budapest and gets fine productions values for what was, I assume, a reduced budget. There are decadent interiors aplenty and the costumes are all sumptuous. On the podcast this week, I said that visually, "Dracula" was a worthy successor to Starz and Showtime's various Slutty History dramas, which showrunners attempt to make history relevant by adding nipples and modeling the dramatic thrust around the "Godfather." Like The CW's "Reign," though, "Dracula" is a reminder that Slutty History works best if you're able to give up the goods, if you've got nudity and thrusting and violence. Otherwise, in 2013, you might as well be embalmed. In "Dracula," there are whole episodes in which various stages of Standards & Practices-enforced coitus interruptus are all that you have to spice up long conversations about mergers and acquisitions in the energy sector. That's not very satisfying under any circumstances and it's even less satisfying if what you've signed on for is something called "Dracula."
The fifth episode of "Dracula" briefly introduces an expert in enhanced interrogation. She admits to the subject of her upcoming torture that her job has become tedious.
"There are, after all, only so many variations on a theme one can play," she says, but you sense that the words are coming from "Dracula" itself, expressing both the frustration of the writers, but also of the audience by that point.
For the writers, they're playing with a property so familiar and so endlessly adapted that NBC can get away with calling it a "legend" and only anal retentive malcontents such as myself will complain. I get what NBC is saying. "Dracula" is not a legend, but it might as well be. Dragging "Dracula," a short book and already awash in filler, out as a 10-episode series doing exactly what audiences expect would surely be tedious. After Murnau and Coppola and Tod Browning and Dario Argento and Terence Fisher and William Crane and dozens of other directors have put their stamps on the material, there are indeed only so many variations on a theme one can play.
So that's why I have to return to "Sleepy Hollow" and "Bates Motel." Neither of them is a perfect show, but I believe that the writers behind both shows are really, really amused by what they're getting to do to worlds that audiences think they know. They've discovered that there are always new variations on a theme you can play, at least in a shortened cable-length season. I'd bet that by Season 3, especially if FOX orders 22 episodes for next year, the writers on "Sleepy Hollow" are going to be bored or desperate or both. But at least they hit on a variation that makes that property hum.
The writers on "Dracula" have not hit on that variation. I'd hate to rule out the possibility that a great TV show could be made about energy-based political machinations in the burgeoning industrialization of late-19th Century London, but it turns out to be a backdrop that drains all of the pleasure from the property that gives "Dracula" its name. Once again, if all you want from "Dracula" is Jonathan Rhys Meyers smoldering, some lavish visuals and shareholder drama involving British Imperial Coolant, then this will be satisfying. If you want scares, disturbing imagery and a fresh take on vampire mythology that feels like it adds worthy details to the genre's vast library, then this falls way, way short.
"Dracula" premieres at 10 p.m. on Friday, October 25, 2013 on NBC.
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