Since its publication in 1897, Bram Stoker’s masterful gothic thriller Dracula has inspired several films (ranging from the ‘30s classic with Bela Lugosi to a slapstick farce from Mel Brooks), multiple stage adaptations, a musical, a TV miniseries and several TV movies, and even a ballet. I’m pretty sure, however, that NBC’s new series adaptation, which premieres tonight, is the first time Dracula bas been turned into a sleep aid.
This muddled new show opens in 1881 Romania, as two shadowy figures break into Dracula’s crypt and reanimate his dessicated corpse via a blood sacrifice. The old bloodsucker cleans up very well, in the form of Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Here’s where things start to get confusing, though. Somehow we’ve flashed forward a decade or so to London, where Dracula is passing himself off as an American industrialist called Alexander Grayson. He’s ostensibly in the British capital to drum up financial support for his new wireless electrical technology that will brighten the London nights. His real motive, however, is to take down many of the city’s wealthy movers and shakers, who are members of an ancient and deadly secret society that cursed Dracula with his plasma-craving immortality centuries ago, a project in which he finds a very unexpected ally.
Dracula’s attention is divided, moreover, after he encounters Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw), a lovely medical student who immediately fascinates Dracula with her uncanny resemblance to his long-lost wife. The vampire resolves to have Mina for himself, despite her engagement to Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a handsome but somewhat oafish young journalist. At odds with both these suitors is Mina’s best friend, Lucy Westenra (Katie McGrath), whose devotion to Mina appears to go well beyond the sisterly.
I haven’t even gotten into the medical experiments Dracula is underwriting with an eye to getting over his fatal aversion to sunlight, but it should already be obvious that series creator Cole Haddon is heavily reimagining Stoker’s sturdy original thriller, to dubious ends. Tonight’s premiere is a sluggish hour in which I spent most of my time just trying to figure out what was going on and who each of the many, many unfamiliar characters was in relation to the people around him or her. Mina and her young friends are shallow and not very interesting, while Dracula’s minion, Renfield, has morphed from a gibbering, pasty-faced, bug-ingesting madman into a strapping and well-spoken black lawyer (Nonso Anozie) who is both faithful companion and confidant to Dracula.
The most interesting character, for my money, in this new series is Lady Jayne (Victoria Smurfit), a Victorian Buffy the Vampire Slayer who dashes through the night in sexy steampunk outfits dispatching Nosferatu, as she calls Dracula’s ilk. (She has fabricated the serial killer Jack the Ripper, we learn, to explain the mangled human bodies left by vampire attacks).
After watching all five of the preview episodes NBC helpfully sent out for review, eventually I started to untangle the snarled threads of this complicated narrative and to find parts that are fairly compelling. Getting there, however, means slogging through lots of very tedious scenes, although on the whole, the series looks as expensive as it reportedly is.
I also am still looking for someone to root for. The show seems to be trying to make Dracula into a tragic hero, and Rhys Meyers is very charismatic in the title role, despite a distracting free-range American accent. Yet while Dracula’s main adversaries are truly terrible men, it’s hard to overlook the fact that Dracula seems to have no compunction about murdering both guilty and innocent alike if it suits his purposes. And sadly, as noted above, most of the more conventionally heroic characters are dull and colorless.
Worst of all, this series is simply not very scary, which is kind of the minimum I expect from a show called Dracula. I’m not encouraged that the showrunner and head writer is Daniel Knauf, who created a supernatural-themed HBO series called Carnivale about a decade ago. That series started out with tremendous promise before it got lost in its own murky mythology, sluggish pacing and mostly unsympathetic characters. I wish I could say I don’t foresee history repeating itself, but as tonight’s premiere episode reveals, this bloodless Dracula just doesn’t have a lot of dramatic bite.