October 26, 2013

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “Dracula”


DRACULA:  Friday 10PM on NBC – If Nothing Else Is On…

A century of vampire movies and TV shows has taught us that undead is by no means the same as lifeless, but NBC’s new excavation of DRACULA doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo.  Produced on a lavish scale (at least in the pilot) that belies the show’s international co-production origins–although the jumble of accents on screen and stilted dialogue don’t–it’s an exercise heavy on atmosphere but lacking in scares and drama.

A lot of the particulars this time around have been changed, but the character names–Jonathan Harker, Mina Murray, Renfield, Abraham Van Helsing, and of course the Count himself–are familiar.   In 1896 London, Dracula (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) has come to town in the guise of Alexander Grayson, an American entrepreneur developing a technology that will produce electricity without wires or the need for oil.  In fact, Dracula/Grayson’s real mission is to track down and eliminate the members of the Order of the Dragon, an ancient group of rich evildoers who, centuries ago, slaughtered all of Dracula’s family (and presumably led to his becoming a vampire, although that hasn’t been explained yet).  In the 19th century, all the Dragoneers are noblemen and industrialists–the Victorian era equivalent of The 1%.  The big twist on the traditional Dracula formula is that here, Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann) is Dracula’s partner in fighting the Order, and in fact he was the one who freed Dracula from his Romanian crypt for that purpose.  Complicating all this, however, is Dracula’s instant fixation on Mina (Jessica De Gouw), who happens to be the spitting image of the Count’s long-dead bride.  Mina feels the pull, too, although she’s engaged to Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), here an ambitious young journalist.

The Dracula character has proven infinitely malleable in its various incarnations over the decades, but this isn’t one of the more inspired ones.  In the era of True Blood, The Vampire Diaries and Twilight, the tuxedoed bon vivant who seduces women at the opera and bares his fangs while saying things like “Before you die, take heart–you will soon be joined in hell by scores of your brethren!” is more campy than frightening.  Watching him, one ticks off the rules of this particular game–this Drac doesn’t sleep in a coffin during the day, but he does need to avoid direct sunlight, and apart from blood, he can at least drink whiskey–without feeling any terror.  (The Dracula-ish Klaus on Vampire Diaries and now The Originals is far more frightening while still bringing the gothic charm.)  It’s also a puzzle that series creator/pilot writer Cole Haddon and the producers felt the need to make Dracula’s alter ego American, since all it does is put an extra strain of effort on Rhys Meyers’ performance.

Director Steve Shill provides some sumptuous visuals, including an enormous ball where Dracula/Grayson makes his London debut, and a rooftop battle between Dracula and one of the Dragons.  He does, however indulge in wince-inducing slow-motion action during that battle, which by now is a tiresome cliche and particularly out of place in this period setting (someone was probably trying to ape Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes spectacles).  The bigger problem is Haddon’s script, which is a pile of undigested exposition and barely speakable dialogue that never develops any pace or rhythm.  That leaves the cast at loose ends.  Rhys Meyers throws around smoldering looks, unable to make any sense out of Dracula’s Occupy Wall Street mind-set, and since Van Helsing’s allegiance to the vampire is made clear only at the end of the pilot, we’ll see if Kretschmann can make something of that in future episodes.  Jessica De Gouw was a striking Huntress on Arrow last season, so one hopes the show will let her be more than pretty but vacuous as it goes on; there’s less hope for Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s Jonathan Harker.  Victoria Smurfit, as Lady Jane, the bosomy Dragon seduced at the opera, seems to be modeling her performance after the girlfriends of Bond villains.  The most interesting presence in the pilot is Nonso Azonie, as Dracula’s large, black, soft-spoken manservant Renfield, very different from the Dwight Frye model of the character.

Airing at 10PM Friday nights, not much will be expected of Dracula in the ratings, especially since the co-production financing means NBC pays a cut rate on the license fee.  It should get a solid lead-in from Grimm, and if it can manage not to collapse after that, it has a fair chance of modest success.  Perhaps with time it will become as pleasant to listen to as it is to watch; at the moment, when the characters start speaking, you might wish you had a stake or two at hand.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."