Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
NBC entered the fall with a pair of shows that gave the network what it didn’t get from the spectacular, yet low-rated, Hannibal. In The Blacklist, it had a case-of-the-week thriller predicated on a Hannibal Lecter-Clarice Starling partnership. Dracula, meanwhile, promised to bring with it a re-imagining of a horror icon (with 10 times the cultural penetration of Thomas Harris’ famed cannibal) tooled for mass consumption. Its creative failings aside, The Blacklist has shown itself to be worth the struggling broadcast outlet’s investment; Dracula, meanwhile, is just getting the chance to prove its worth, shunted to Fridays to form a bloc of genre programming with the like-minded Grimm. Four of the series’ first five episodes are set to play out in the heat of November sweeps, a sink-or-swim prospect for Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ take on Bram Stoker’s irrepressible bloodsucker.
One thing working in favor of Dracula’s potential Nielsen fortunes: In those first five episodes, it’s never as actively challenging as Hannibal’s waking nightmares. Unfortunately, there are moments within the series’ early goings where it appears this Dracula wouldn’t know a nightmare if one bit it in the neck. Working from component parts scattered throughout the histories of pop culture and the European continent, first-time series creator Cole Haddon and showrunner Daniel Knauf have crafted a nifty mythology for their count—but not one that’s impenetrable to viewers unfamiliar with Romania’s Vlad III or his father’s activities with The Order Of The Dragon. In Rhys Meyers’ battles with the forces of darkness—and his fundamental aversion to sunlight—there’s even a touch of the allegorical tensions that drove Knauf’s most-renowned TV work, Carnivàle. The Dracula he and Haddon have concocted has brains, style, and mood, but it’s missing one crucial element: a soul.
Part of that blame falls to their conception of the main character, a revivified Vlad The Impaler posing as a self-made American tycoon, Alexander Grayson, making his big foray into British industry. For the majority of his screen time, Rhys Meyers is handcuffed to a performance-within-a-performance, a juggling act delivered in a distractingly deliberate dialect that sucks the life out of both sides of his Drac. His alter ego adds to the already crowded ranks of the ensemble, which desperately seeks a major role for every player within Dracula lore. Luckily, the show finds its most enjoyable presences in Mina Murray—Jessica De Gouw playing the vampire’s love interest as a headstrong med student—and Renfield, who enjoys a refreshing parity with the count thanks in part to the regal grace Nonso Anozie brings from his time on Game Of Thrones.
Knauf and Haddon have greater success in pushing through their stranger, better ideas in non-narrative areas. When he’s given a chance to show the anguish caused by his immortality, Rhys Meyers punches through the limitations of the Grayson/Dracula split. Though budget constraints reveal themselves in later episodes, the pilot is frequently visually stunning—no more so than during an opening sequence that swoops from corner to corner within the grand ballroom of Dracula’s London manor. The wide-open spaces Rhys Meyers occupies are smartly chosen: After a century of entombment, it’s understood that the count is seeking as much breathing room as possible. That implication is almost enough to make up for the moment in which Thomas Kretschmann’s Van Helsing—here a reluctant ally of Dracula, rather than the vampire’s nemesis—suggests that his tragically romantic co-conspirator suffers from a literally broken heart.
But this Dracula serves multiple masters, so genericness is bound to seep through. A British-American co-production, it must simultaneously appeal to the viewers of NBC and the U.K.’s Sky Living—a transatlantic aim to please that’s palpable any time Rhys Meyers’ suddenly acquires the hand-to-hand combat skills of his Victorian contemporaries in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes franchise. The requisite night-stalker sultriness plagues the early goings, with a boudoir aesthetic ported over from a neutered version of Showtime. Baseless provocation abounds, as well: A sapphic subplot over here, grotesqueries with none of the Grand Guignol theatricality of Hannibal over there. Sometimes those ingredients combine into something interesting—as when an evening at the mud-wrestling matches is juxtaposed with footage of Dracula and a female companion ravishing one another—but mostly they just spoil the stew.
An overabundance of ingredients hurts both Dracula and its Dracula, the latter of which is constructed from the discarded bits of characters within and without the public domain. He’s Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Grayson persona (Where’d they get that last name?) smacks especially of Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne. He’s The Count Of Monte Cristo, seeking revenge against those who took everything from him. He’s Jay Gatsby, assuming a new name and aristocratic accessories while pining for a lost love from afar. At times, the only character he doesn’t resemble is Count Dracula—wise for a re-imagining, but more than what one of the corporations footing the bill may have bargained for.
Created by: Cole Haddon
Starring: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Jessica De Gouw, Thomas Kretschman, Victoria Smurfit, Oliver Jackson-Cohen
Debuts: Friday at 10 p.m. Eastern on NBC
Format: Supernatural drama
Five episodes watched for review