NBC deserves some measure of credit. Despite languishing in fourth place for a number of years now, the network at least still tries to develop interesting new programming in an attempt to pull itself out of its rut. That’s more than I can say for CBS, for example, which has grown complacent in its success and churns out practically nothing other than dull, formulaic crap season after season. Having garnered some critical acclaim (if not much in the way of ratings) for last year’s ‘Hannibal’, NBC has now set its sights on another very stylish, very ambitious new horror drama featuring an infamous literary serial killer. This time, the subject is Bram Stoker’s vampiric prince of darkness, ‘Dracula’.
Obviously, ‘Dracula’ has been adapted for movies and TV something like a hundred thousand times already. A new telling has to do something to set itself apart. This one is a bit of a hodgepodge of many prior versions, and takes quite a lot of cues from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film, in its desire to turn the undead blood-sucking monster into a romantic antihero. Fortunately, it has a few new tricks up its sleeve as well.
The pilot episode, called ‘The Blood Is the Life’, opens in 1881 Romania, as a pair of tomb robbers enter a cave and discover a centuries-old crypt inside. What one of them doesn’t realize is that they’re not really there to find treasure. The other one (literally) stabs his partner in the back, slits his throat, and lets the blood pour down onto the shriveled corpse inside, which begins to stir to life again.
Cut to 1896. Dracula, now restored to youth and virility and played by ‘The Tudors’ hunk Jonathan Rhys Meyers, has moved to London. As in other versions of the story, he takes up residence in a grand mansion and plots to infiltrate upper-class society. In an interesting new twist, he has affected a vaguely Texan accent and is posing as a wealthy American industrialist under the name Alexander Grayson. Dracula/Grayson claims to have perfected the research of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, and developed a new scientific process that will allow electricity to be transmitted wirelessly. At a party he stages to unveil his breakthrough, the local business elite express their skepticism and distrust for this foreign interloper.
Many characters familiar from the Stoker novel appear here, but with completely new roles and motivations. Jonathan Harker, formerly a law clerk, is now a reporter. His fiancée Mina Murray is a promising surgical student. Dracula’s insane acolyte Renfield is a black valet who very much has his wits about him, and acts more as co-conspirator than mere servant.
As the episode progresses, we learn that Dracula’s own back story is not too dissimilar to the Coppola film. Centuries earlier, the Carpathian prince’s beloved wife was murdered by a secret brotherhood called the Order of the Dragon. The vampire swore vengeance, vowing to wipe out every trace of the organization, no matter how many lifetimes it should take. Of course, once he sets eyes on Mina, he immediately recognizes her as the reincarnation of his lost love.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean that Dracula is exactly a good guy in this version. He murders quite viciously as he sees fit, sometimes to take out his rivals and other times simply to feed on strangers.
The pilot episode has very slick and elaborate (and clearly expensive) production values. Unfortunately, the actors still mostly feel like they’re playing dress-up on studio sets. A big rooftop fight scene between Dracula and a vampire hunter is staged with that speed-ramping effect that Zack Snyder likes so much, and it looks ridiculously cheesy. I’m also not particularly sold on Rhys Meyers in the lead or his weird accent. He’s no Gary Oldman, that’s for sure.
On the other hand, I feel like there’s potential here. Overall, the episode is a lot better than I expected. I really like this take on Renfield, and the score by Trevor Morris has a very strange modernist electronic vibe that’s both totally inappropriate for the setting but also kind of seductive. The episode also ends with an intriguing plot twist in which we discover that vampire hunter Prof. Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann from ‘The River’) is actually in league with Dracula to take down the Order of the Dragon, and was in fact the tomb raider who resurrected him.
I’m on board to watch again and see where this goes. I’m not so sure that NBC has a lot of faith in it, though. Despite its obviously high budget and tons of recent advertising hype, the network has scheduled the show in a Friday night death-slot where it’s almost certain to fail.