Jan 30 2014

NBC’s Dracula Blurs the Line Between Man and Monster

Published by at 11:00 am under Reviews,Television

dracula

Bram Stoker’s novel is an immortal cultural touchstone that inspired a bottomless subgenre of bloodsucking entertainment that has persisted in every medium since. That said, it’s been done to death and beyond. There is no way to escape the legacy of Vlad Tepes, whether your entertainment poison of choice is film, television, literature, the stage, comic books, or goddamn breakfast cereal box art.

He’s been a horrific monster and a dashing romantic, he’s been played for laughs; he’s battled everyone from Buffy to Batman, he’s been a wolf, a bat, and just an immortal lonely soul; he’s been played by Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, and so very many more. If there’s any character whose very nature and morphability lends itself to timeless interpretations, this is your guy.

Having said that, I had a lot of misgivings about NBC’s proposed interpretation of Dracula.  There’s just too much that can go wrong and the biggest one of all is making the undead master a freakin’ puppy dog in love. I hate the clichéness of the vampire’s reincarnated lost love. HATE. IT.

I hate the unoriginality of concept, I hate the flippancy and garishness of turning objects of fear and loathing into blatant sex symbols. But I’m also willing to admit that there aren’t any concepts so lame and cliché that the weak premise can’t be overcome by excellent execution. This is one of those.

Like the works of Shakespeare, Stoker’s masterpiece is one whose themes lend themselves extremely well to modernization and loose adaptation. We all know the classic Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet set-ups even if we have not read the original plays. Stories like these set a template within which a new vision can be created using the basic elements, preserving the classic tales with new versions for present and future generations to relate to the world they live in.

Judging from the recently concluded first season of Dracula, I think it’s safe to give this one a round of hearty applause and calls for more. It draws upon the characters and themes of the original work and transports them to the turn of the last century in Victorian England.

The xenophobic fear of uncultured immigrants corrupting fine British ladies is replaced with a fear of American industry and innovation taking over the European old guard and the heroines helpless pining for their suitors to save them have been replaced with confident, dynamic women looking to carve their own way into society. So far, so good.

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Given the time period, character costumes and overall visual style are a high point of the show. The cast is exceptional as well, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers utilizing both cultured schoolboy charm and gravel-voiced menace in equal measure to bring this new vision of Vlad the Impaler to life.

In addition new interpretations and roles for the usual cast of Mina Murray, Lucy Westenra, and Jonathan Harker, Dracula adds in a lot of original characters that steal the show at times. In this version of the story, Abraham Van Helsing resurrects the master vampire to enlist his help in destroying the politically corrupt Order of the Dragon after they massacre his family.

At this point, the series chooses to play a very interesting game of letting the audience decide for themselves who the real monster is. Is it Dracula posing as innovative American businessman Alexander Grayson who is actually an undead creature in human form feeding off of the blood of the living? Is it the Order, who preserve their power and wealth by any terrible means necessary? Or is it Van Helsing, who has no limit to the carnage that he is willing to unleash before he claims his vengeance? More than anything else, NBC’s Dracula is about a war between men who have all become monsters in their own way, and that central metaphor makes it extraordinary.

In addition to the business, physical, and political battles of the show’s gentlemen, the ladies get intriguing roles to play as well. In this story, Mina (played by the lovely Jessica De Gouw) is an aspiring medical student in an era where everyone is encouraging her to simply settle down and rely on her husband to take care of her. Grayson presents himself as a forward thinker who sees no reason that women can’t be anything they want to be while her fiancé, Harker, proves a little more resistant to the idea. Score one for the vamp. Lucy (Katie McGrath) is no longer a mere victim pursued by Dracula as she sorts through her suitors, but a confused gay woman in love with her best friend whose scheming towards this end causes chaos.

Rounding out the female cast of Dracula is Lady Jayne Wetherby (Victoria Smurfit), who is the premiere vampire slayer of the Order. She’s not only a total badass, but the very picture of a strong, confident, sexually-liberated middle-aged woman resisting aging into obsolescence. Her relationship with Grayson provides a lot of the show’s sexual content and tension. How ballsy does a vampire have to be to pursue an affair with the baddest slayer around? Pretty effing.

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Totally worth the risk, though.

Shakespearian enough for you yet? Having already concocted an interpersonal epic of anti-heroic proportions, the creators decided that wasn’t enough. Let’s make it politically relevant as well! Grayson represents a Randian anti-hero; the individual who uses his means to go against the grain to change the world for the better, if only for his own self-interest. In this case he champions wireless geomagnetic energy as a replacement for the petroleum that so depressingly still controls all of our lives.

Using his story as an allegory for the extreme political sabotage of the real life oil industry that has led to the death of such advancements as the electric car among other things was a very interesting and unexpected choice for sure. And interesting and unexpected are both things I think we could use more of on television these days.

Amongst all of the sex, violence, and social and political intrigue is the central love story between Mina and Grayson. This is, of course, the series’ weak point, which is no surprise. If they could have toned it down a little and made Drac a little less…emphatic in his pursuit of Ms. Murray, I think the show could have been just about perfect. Well, that and if they didn’t make Renfield Grayson’s black butler. Diversity is a good thing, but we’ve all seen that archetype far too often at this point to not roll our eyes.

If nothing else, NBC’s Dracula shows that there is still plenty of life in undeath for the character. You could argue that this story could have been effectively told without the vampire aspect, but I would just argue back that there are no stories that can’t be improved with vampires or ninjas.

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I like to think that Lucy’s smile here comes from having just read about vampire ninjas.

If you were hoping for a straight adaptation of the novel, needless to say this is not it. But odds are you’ve seen your share of those and are up for something a little more modern and different this should scratch that itch nicely.

As a lifelong vampire fanatic who’s pretty much seen it all, I give it my seal of approval. But when my wife sat down and watched some of it with me she seemed upset that I hadn’t told her about it so apparently the appeal may be wider than I’d thought. It hadn’t even occurred to me that a non-horror fan would be interested in Dracula, but provided one enters with an open mind and a taste for intrigue the show may just have something for everyone.

The season finale was to die (and rise again) for, but unfortunately the show is currently on bubble in terms of whether it will return for a second season and I think I can say without a doubt that things are just getting really good. Dracula is taking the long road to building its characters and overall story. That should be encouraged, but in this day and age it’s becoming an outdated concept as people scream to be blown away every second of every episode.

If you were wondering whether or not you should give this one a try, now’s the time. Nothing in television is worse than discovering a great show that has come and gone prematurely before you had a chance to support and potentially help save it. I really want to see where the story goes from here, and hopefully there are enough people out there who agree with me.

 





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2 responses so far

  • C.J. Lightbourn

    I agree with the bulk of this review with the exception of the dismissal of Renfield’s race. He wasn’t Dracula’s simple butler. He was his LAWYER. He was an intelligent, educated black man in a time period where to be as such was a very difficult struggle in the least. His personal story and situation of meeting and working for Dracula demonstrates not subservience of a black man to a white man but rather an outcast of society finding a bond in a fellow outcast. Not equals of course because nobody is equal with Dracula but not a simple servant either as is evidenced by the ferocity in which Dracula comes to Renfield’s rescue when he is kidnapped. This is still an age where there are still FAR too few black characters on shows like these; Especially black characters which are also well written and do not adhere to stereotypes. Black audiences are rolling their eyes whenever there aren’t any at all. Diversity in media entertainment is not some cheap ploy to be cynically dismissed as unnecessary where it can be achieved.

  • http://videodame.com Sara Clemens

    I don’t know how I missed this back in January, but right on regarding giving this series a fair shake! I have to agree with C.J., though, Renfield is amazing (and def not Drac’s butler). He’s my favorite character, though I’m also quite partial to Lucy. Jonathan can go jump off a bridge, and that goes for the character in general. His diary is the only worthwhile thing about him.

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