NBC's internationally co-financed production of Dracula may do more than simply test whether or not the network has room on its schedule for another opulent, extravagant-looking, horror-themed series that exudes sympathy for the devil. It may prove to be a test of whether or not vampires in mainstream media are facing a declining interest, or if their powers include the ability to be eternally rebooted in a myriad of superficially different but thematically familiar ways without losing any of their appeal.
In that regard, Dracula isn't shy about presenting itself as a conspiracy-laden reboot with steampunk sensibilities and appropriately luxuriant visuals. After a brief introduction in which we witness the resurrection of a long dormant Dracula (played here by Jonathan Rhys Meyers – Mission: Impossible III, The Tudors), the world's most famous vampire assumes the guise of American entrepreneur Alexander Grayson, someone altogether unfamiliar to the audience and to the rest of the similarly resurrected/rebooted characters of Bram Stoker's famous novel.
Along with Dracula, this new series from creator Cole Haddon brings us Renfield (played by Game of Thrones' Nonso Anozie), as well as Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Jonathan Harker and even Arrow's Jessica De Gouw as Mina Murray. Even Van Helsing (Thomas Kretchmann) is here, but as with Dracula, they're all slightly different. Right away, the series makes the viewer unsure with whom they should align their sympathies, as during Grayson's admittedly ostentatious party and demonstration of his free and "wireless" energy, the support of the audience seems like it should fall with Dracula and his soon-to-be-revealed cause.
It's a shift to be sure, but this sense of reversed compassion is not entirely different from versions we have seen before – especially in Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 version. In that regard, however, Coppola didn’t tack on a revenge plot against the Order of the Dragon – a not-so-secret society that not only nearly destroyed Dracula and killed his wife centuries earlier, but also has staked its claim on the future by seeking to control oil as the ultimate energy source. And it's at this oddly modern, socio-political juncture that Dracula makes its wildest departure from other iterations of the character. Dracula isn't a drastic reboot; he's still the same bloodsucker he's always been (there's plenty of him feeding on the women of the night), but now we're just seeing him as the hero of a much larger story.
Haddon's gaslight-illuminated view of this world assumes that those watching are already familiar with the story of Dracula, in one form or another. As such, this version feels no real need to retread familiar territory. Instead, it takes the character and his past and puts him not only in a new plot, but forces him into a new (albeit fake) personality as well. The effect is likely going to be a place where audience opinion on the program differs greatly.
On the one hand, the show is called Dracula, and therefore the assumption is that it would be altogether about the man for whom it was named. On the other hand, this Alexander Grayson is a whole new persona, and through him we are afforded a chance to see a familiar character do things we've not necessarily seen before. In order to maintain his charade and his plans for vengeance, Grayson has to act differently than Dracula normally would. In doing so, this opens up a slew of possibilities for not only exploring new things about the character, but it also creates an opportunity for new and exciting storylines. (It's a stretch, but it could happen.)
Sure, Haddon could have just as easily brought Dracula into Victorian London and set him against the Order of the Dragon without all of this American businessman stuff, but that new American persona is an interesting one for reasons beyond appealing to half the show's intended audience and Meyers' rather unique sounding accent (though an argument could be made it still trumps Charlie Hunnam and Gerard Butler in that department).
For one, the idea of bourbon-swilling American exceptionalism not only sets the character apart from everyone else in the story, it also gives them – both the Order of the Dragon and those society types concerned with whether or not money is "old" or "new" – a reason to dislike him that goes a little deeper than a simple distrust of an interloper. In this case, Grayson's an "interloping colonial," someone to be dealt with in a manner that's perhaps different or more urgent than your average trespasser.
This notion manages to add some depth to a series that's not particularly deep in its initial outing. In fact, Dracula as a whole seems more concerned with superficial aspects of its production than with telling a truly compelling story. As it stands with the pilot episode, the thinking behind the series seems to have been that vampires are fun, and conspiracies are fun. People seem to readily consume media about them both, so why not combine the two?
In a sense, it's fan service of the highest order, and Dracula does feel a little heavy early on in that regard. But that just puts the show in an unusual place where it has to deliver on both accounts lest one party feel compelled to check out if their expectations aren't being met. To a certain degree, the pilot episode, 'The Blood is the Life,' works by setting up a precarious balancing act between the outlandish and the sincere; it's not entirely artificial, but it's not exactly the genuine article either. The concern is: By stepping out on that particular fan service-y tightrope right from the start, the chances of making a fatal misstep become exponentially greater.
It's not a mind-blowing start, but it's not entirely ruinous either. Besides, there are only 10 episodes to contend with, so it will be interesting to see just how long Dracula can maintain its balance without tipping too far in one direction.
Dracula continues next Friday with 'A Whiff of Sulphur' @10pm on NBC.
Photos: Nino Munoz & Jonathon Hession/NBC