Saturday, 26 October 2013

Pilot: NBC & Sky Living's DRACULA

Saturday, 26 October 2013

What's it about? Yet another re-imagining of Bram Stoker's seminal horror novel Dracula from 1897, this time with Dracula (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) posing as American entrepreneur Alexander Grayson—a scientist keen to bring free wireless electricity to London, as part of a plan to ruin a cartel of wealthy businessmen with a vested interest in traditional energy. Oh, who are also his sworn enemies The Order of the Dragon.

Who made it? Dracula is an Anglo-American co-production between Carnival Films (Whitechapel, Downton Abbey) for Sky Living and NBC. It's created by Cole Haddon, who's assisted by Daniel Knauf (Carnivàle) as showrunner. This pilot was directed by Steve Shill (Dexter, The Tudors) and future directors include Andy Goddard (Downton Abbey), Brian Kelly (Lewis), Nicky Murphy (Primeval) and Tim Fyfell (Masters of Sex).

Who stars in it? Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors) plays the eponymous vampire with an American accent, with Nonso Anozie (Game of Thrones) as his trusted manservant Renfield. Jessica De Gouw (Arrow) plays Dracula's love interest Mina Murray, whose journalist boyfriend Jonathan Harker is played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Mr Selfridge). Katie McGrath (Merlin) is Mina's socialite best-friend Lucy, while Thomas Kretchmann (The Pianist) is Abraham Van Helsing before sharpening stakes crossed his mind. The cast is rounded out by Victoria Smurfit (Ballykissangel) as vampire hunter Lady Jane.

What's good about it? Dracula is a tricky property to adapt well, because the story and characters are so well established that it's hard to do something new without straying too far from what people love about the original story to begin with. I'm not entirely sold on the idea of making Dracula an American plotting to bankrupt wealthy energy magnates who are affiliated with a secret society that burnt his wife at the stake and imprisoned him in Romania 500-years ago, but for now it's at least a different angle. It gives Dracula a job and position in society, and the show probably benefits from having things operate on the level of a cut-throat business drama. That's not anything people will be tuning in for, but we'll see if the show manages to make it as entertaining as simply watching Dracula kill and evade being killed.

The casting's pretty strong in the areas that matter. Rhys Meyer's has a great look and will cause female hearts to flutter, even if his US accent is wonky at times and Dracula doesn't come across as particularly frightening. Du Gow and McGrath bring lots of sex appeal and the requisite heaving bosoms, while Smurfit has arguably the most intriguing role as a beautiful socialite who's secretly a vampire slayer. You can't really fault the decision to cast Kretschmann as Van Helsing, either.

Some of the twists to the tale worked quite well. It makes sense to turn Harker into a journalist instead of an estate agent, and the episode's biggest change to Bram Stoker's story provided a welcome raise of the eyebrows (that Van Helsing's the person who released Dracula from underground captivity, because they have a common enemy and are now working in partnership to defeat The Order). I wasn't expecting that and it gives the show an interesting change of dynamic.

Filmed overseas in Budapest because of tax breaks, "The Blood is the Life" looked good and appeared opulent with grand interiors and stunning exteriors. I never felt like I was in Victorian London, exactly, but it did come across as an authentic 19th-century. I also really liked the music by Trevor Morris (Pillars of the Earth, The Borgias), which felt influenced by '80s synth at times. The sequence with a decapitated head in a hat box was sublimely scored.

What's bad about it? It wasn't scary enough and seemed to shy away from being as graphic as I'd have liked. I know this is a mainstream show, but it felt like the envelope could have been pushed a little more. NBC and Sky Living are both home to the much grislier Hannibal in their respective countries, so it's a shame Dracula wasn't a touch more gruesome and able to make you wince. Not that scares are dependent on the amount of gore and blood, but even besides that the atmosphere never hung heavy on your shoulders. It all felt a little trivial, and Dracula is perhaps too sympathetic? It feels like NBC want him to be the new Dexter Morgan.

It's early days, but making Renfield into a burly black butler instead of an insane acolyte felt like it was stealing some fun away from that role, and Harker's character is once again incredibly bland.

Is it worth sticking with? This wasn't wretched and there are definitely elements of this adaptation I'm interested in, or intrigued to see how they choose to develop it. But I can well imagine Dracula running out of oomph within six episodes and thus losing my attention. There's just something about the show's tone and world-building that doesn't convince me this has a long-term future. It's all a bit too safe. Do you really want Dracula to be vanquishing enemies by targeting their wallets, rather than simply ripping their throats out one evening?

Anything else worth mentioning? Did you know that Thomas Kretchmann actually played Dracula in the poorly-received 2012 movie Dracula 3D? Well now you do. Oh, and Katie McGrath is still delish.

Where and when is it broadcast? NBC had the world premiere last night (Friday 25 October), with Sky Living beginning the show on Halloween night.