[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.
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.