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From the beginning of NBC’s new Dracula series, a question kept creeping up behind me: Hasn’t Jonathan Rhys Meyers already played this role?
As King Henry VIII, Rhys Meyers charmed, seduced, hunted and murdered his way across the lavish but ultimately depressing The Tudors. His Henry was a man who had it all, always wanted more, was never satisfied, and morphed into an engorged serial killer with a crown.
As Alexander Grayson/Dracula, Rhys Meyers charms, seduces, hunts and murders his way across London. Only, this London is a couple of centuries forward from Henry, Gothic and grimy as we think of the 1890s, full of villains and devoid of heroes. Henry VIII would have fit right in, and in the person of Jonathan Rhys Meyers, he does.
NBC’s Dracula is not a re-creation of Bram Stoker’s classic. It shares some character names along with an English setting, but the writers have twisted enough of the story so that no one really can guess where it will go. To give some sense of the twists if you haven’t seen it, Dracula is posing as an American industrial power, Alexander Grayson, engaging in as many hostile corporate takeovers as hostile blood transfusions. He personifies predatory capitalism. Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann) not only is not hunting Dracula here, he revived the vampire 10 years before the story begins and is working in league with him to destroy a common enemy. They have patiently built an industrial empire and moved it to London just to fight that enemy, the Order of the Dragon. That common enemy made Drac a vampire, and framed Vlad the Impaler aka Dracula on the very crime that made him the “impaler,” so they’re evil. But they fight vampires, who are more evil. Dracula may drink blood but he has a moral compass. It’s mostly broken, but it does guide how he treats love interest Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw). This Dracula is a student of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and to some extent P. T. Barnum and the great magicians. He is interesting to watch, and seems poised to kill any character on screen with him at any moment. Van Helsing is working on a way to help Dracula walk in the sunlight and evidently has a plan to kill off his vampire ally once their common enemy is defeated. But as that common enemy is a secret and very powerful global organization akin to the Templars or the Freemasons, defeating them could take a few seasons. Drac runs on blood, while his enemy runs on oil. When you consider the fact that Dracula and Van Helsing are both evil, and their enemy’s evil is what created and united them, well, you have a revenge story that can go just about anywhere. Nobody likes anybody else and poor Mina is stuck between all of them. She should move to New York and forget them all.
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Rhys Meyers brings the same athletic cockiness, and the same ability to turn from one extreme emotion to another without falling over into clownishness, that he brought well to The Tudors. He makes a decent Dracula but risks typecasting, as Grayson and Henry are almost the same character. Many of the other characters are indistinct, other than Mina, Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and Redfield (Nonso Anozie) — with the latter quietly stealing scenes as Dracula’s body man. The 1890s London setting is bleak and fitting, but part of me keeps expecting Johnny Depp to turn up in a stovepipe hat. Dracula’s writers may be insane. In the first three episodes, Dracula has managed to seduce a major threat who is cunning yet never suspects that she is bedding the vampire she is hunting; he has neutralized enemies from afar with his mind; and Mina and Lucy have gone off on a drug binge complete with an “In a Gadda Da Vida” style musical riff in the soundtrack. The sound scoring in general feels more 1980s Tales of the Dark Side than it should. A little more Danny Elfman and a little less warpy synthesizer would help.
Dracula is bloody, it tries to be sexy, it’s definitely violent and nearly always dark and moody. It’s not for kids. It’s very ambitious and beautiful to look at, compared to most of what else is on the broadcast networks. But it also feels a little tired even after just the three episodes I have seen. Dracula seems a little bored. Maybe he needs a more interesting enemy to bite into.
Fox’s Sleepy Hollow is similarly ambitious, apocalyptic and dark, but so far it’s doing more with weaker source material than Dracula. Tim Mison’s Ichabod Crane is a not an awkward teacher but a dashing spy and war hero thrown out of time, and Nicole Beharie’s police lieutenant Abbie Mills seems real. Washington Irvin’s original story is not followed at all, other than nodding to the horseman being an evil Hessian mercenary beheaded in the Revolutionary War.
If you have to choose between the two, so far Sleepy Hollow is the stronger horse, even though its central villain lacks a head.