Episode Title: “The Blood is the Life”
Writers: Cole Haddon and Daniel Knauf
Director: Steve Shill
Dracula’s influence in the world of pop culture has been greater than any character past or present. His characteristics and traits have been pawned off on various incarnations of the vampire. From Anne Rice to Stephanie Meyer; Richard Mattheson to John Ajvide Lindqvis, the vampire is on the mind of the collective conscious. Whether we see the best or worst of mankind in these creatures, vampires represent that pure primal force of mankind. That struggle to be civilized in an artificial world.
The rise in vampire culture during the last twenty or so years has largely been a Dracula absent world. Modern vampires sparkle, they get into fights with werewolves, and some are just too hot for television. NBC’s “Dracula” seeks a spot among teen vampires – “The Vampire Diaries” – and the too sexy for its own good schlock fest, “True Blood,” though it is coming back to its final season next year.
To compete with the “sexy” market, Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays the show’s sexy vampire. Granted, Rhys Meyers cut his teeth as Henry VIII on “The Tutors” and he was the face of Hugo Boss, making him more than qualified to play the role. More so, NBC is bringing you a different kind of Dracula. In a sense, he is Jay Gatsby as a vampire and with a taste for revenge. After being resurrected through some spell and blood work, our vampire takes on the guise of Alexander Grayson, an American entrepreneur, seeking to introduce science to the age. The machinery used looks drastically like something from Tesla’s mind. Wireless light bulbs anyone?
Rhys Meyers has the look of the classic, stereotypical Vlad down, but he lacks the charisma to pull it off. I never feel drawn to him. Part of the problem is that I don’t get a real sense of who Dracula is supposed to be. The writers don’t have a clear definition as to what Dracula is; instead, he seems like a man possessed by too many good characters, but getting the worst of every single one of them. The only time he’s compelling is when he is vulnerable. During an interview conducted by Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), here a journalist, we see a moment of weakness where sunlight touches skin. It’s fleeting, but for that one moment, the character is real.
Nonso Anozie as R.M. Renfield provides great balance to Dracula/Grayson’s ego. He feels like an Alfred kind of figure, often posing the philosophical balance with a dark heart. Though, limited in screentime, he’s a joy whenever he’s on screen.
Another great addition to the cast is Jessica De Gouw as Mina Murray, the supposed reincarnated lover of Dracula. As a med student with a personality and strong will, she has more depth here than the character has ever had. Her vulnerability is felt around every corner and dark alley. Her role this season is carved out with her romance to Harker, but has potential to be something even greater.
Showrunner Cole Haddon goes with an odd choice by making Abraham Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann) the reluctant ally of Dracula. The angle has potential, but is set up very poorly. Helsing has lost a lot at the hands of Dracula and his kind, but yet he resurrects the main character anyway. If Kretchsmann’s performance foreshadows what we are to see from him this season, a lapsed action hero will become a dud.
Haddon and the writers take other head scratching detours in the Pilot that make no sense. What was the Victorian age missing? Slow motion and barely choreographed action sequences, right? The odd choice for a primal creature to use weapons lacks logic. You have fangs and a higher rate of speed than your human counterparts, weapons are just unnecessary.
The show does have one thing going for it, great special effects and cinematography. The opening scene where Van Helsing resurrects our star is pulled off fantastically. Dracula’s slow transformation from skeleton to flesh and blood vampire looks incredibly painful; you can feel it in your bones. The time period is captured elegantly on screen, so at least if the acting is bad or the plot is shoddy, you’re still convinced you’re in the right era.
The mythology of the show has potential also. While we don’t get much of anything in the first episode, there are fleeting mentions of The Order of the Dragon. This has great potential as a powerful faction as the season moves along. The Hunters also provide a unique area to maintain balance in a vampiric world. Sadly, it will be missing Van Helsing, but perhaps a new player will rise the ranks to be a major threat. This will more than likely depend on the amount of vampires we’ll see this season. Surely, there must be more.
While the show gets the set pieces right, it falters in plot big time. There’s a lot going on in this first episode, but none of it really connects. Dracula’s revenge is not enough to carry a season worth of story. Largely because, he’s a fracking vampire! He could kill who he wants, whenever he wants, and he could do it better than Jack the Ripper. In a small aside, Jack the Ripper was apparently a vampire. Unless a better story arc is introduced, I don’t see this series lasting past its first season.
Any failed pilot shows promise, regardless of its blunders. While “Dracula” didn’t bomb, it has a lot of work to do to remain a regular in NBC’s lineup. The reputation of character alone will never trump poor ratings or writing. Had it been, we’d be in the sixth or seventh season of “The Dresden Files” by now.
“Dracula” also marks the second step in a new age; the age of the comic book showrunners. We’ve seen what Brian K. Vaughan can do with “Under the Dome,” and now Haddon’s “Dracula.” Soon, Ed Brubakers’ crime writing will grace the small screen. One must wonder if this is what we can expect from the comic book greats; to be whelmed. Just whelmed.