As American as God, Guns, and Bourbon
At first, the idea of starting a ten episode series about Dracula so close to Halloween time makes sense. Just so, the premiere of NBC’s much-publicized Dracula arrives at the height of a collective desire for scary stories. But if you think more about it, that good idea seems less good, as the bulk of the series will be airing during the Thanksgiving season, stretching all the way to Christmastime.
This timing might seem like a killer misstep. It’s also a misstep that Sleepy Hollow avoided by premiering during the usual new TV season, which is to say, mid-September, otherwise known as the run-up to Halloween. Fox’s show is a hit, one of the most successful debuts of this year. If you think about it one more time, the date of Dracula‘s premiere may not be such a problem, because it places very little emphasis on the Halloweeny elements of the monster’s story.
Sure, it features all of the classic Dracula elements, at least in terms of characters. There’s the count himself (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), brooding in a castle-like mansion. He’s attended to by Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who starts off the series as a poor journalist trying to prove himself worthy of Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw), studying to become a doctor and best friends with Lucy Westenra (Katie McGrath, who bears an unnerving resemblance to Keira Knightly). Abraham Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann) even makes an appearance, mentoring Mina in her study of medicine.
But apart from these familiar names, this Dracula has as much in common with The Count of Monte Cristo as it does to its own source material. In this iteration of the story, Dracula awakens in Victorian England. He adopts a false persona—that of Alexander Grayson, super-rich industrialist from the United States, “as American as God, guns, and bourbon”—and sets out to get revenge on the old order that imprisoned him in a coffin for centuries and murdered his wife.
Grayson decides that the best way to exact his vengeance is through emptying his foes’ wallets. The adversaries inhabit the entrenched upper echelon of society, fully at ease with their “overtly grotesque sense of entitlement,” with their money tied up, of course, in the oil industry. Naturally, Grayson takes them on by starting a green energy company, harnessing the power of wireless electricity. His attack sets up the most insistent, and strangest, theme that carries throughout the series. It’s a sort of class warfare, with Grayson positioning himself as an outsider determined on destroying the established societal order.
He seems an unlikely class warrior, considering his vast fortune, but his opponents consider his wealth “new,” and so, beneath their own. This gives him some odd moral authority, at least in this show’s version of such things. Plus, Grayson has a fondness for outsiders and misfits. The most obvious embodiment would be his second-hand man, R.M. Renfield (Nonso Anozie), a lawyer who’s often misjudged by the old money folks because he’s African American. It happens that Mina is also a nonconformist of sorts, as too many male doctors underestimate her.
Wealthy and well situated as he may be, with friends like these, Grayson takes on some underdog sheen, applied mostly to his business dealings, along with Grayson’s acquisition of patents, testing of alloys, and uncovering of bribes. The couple of high-energy action scenes and bouts of bloody violence might be said to punctuate these more mundane bits of corporate espionage. While these scenes can be unsavory, they’re hardly frightening and rarely suspenseful.
Vampire stories usually balance out violence with romance, and Grayson delivers more on that front. He moons over Mina, who looks a lot like his murdered wife, to swelling, synthy music, and he inserts himself into her relationship with Jonathan. Rhys Meyers is mostly effective during such inserting, exuding exotic appeal and sensitive yearning—at least when he’s gazing on his object of desire from afar. When he speaks, his appeal is dulled by his flattened, put-on American accent, which makes him sound like Chris Pine. (Even when he speaks in private to his most trusted advisors, he does so in a harsh whisper, similar to Christian Bale’s Batman.)
That said, the show assures us that Grayson is exceedingly charismatic. Traipsing around Victorian London, from high-class parties to low bohemian absinthe halls, he has no trouble exerting his influence over ladies. And the Victorian setting has its own pleasures: the lavish costumes, the historic mansions, the scientific innovations, all elements recalling movies like The Prestige and From Hell and underlining the show’s incorporation of a dark elegance.
This incorporation is helped along by directors Steve Shill (who worked with Rhys Meyers on The Tudors) and Downton Abbey‘s Andy Goddard, who surely appreciate the ornate settings, but still add flourishes like slow-motion dancing to suggest the absinthe drinkers’ hallucinations, or ramped-up grisly action during vampire fights. Then again, since light is fatal to Grayson—at least through the first half of the season—most of these scenes take place at night. Some of these extra touches are obscured by darkness. In a later episode, Grayson attempts to acquire a vaccine that’ll help him walk around in sunlight. One hopes he’s successful, since seeing the show in greater detail means more distractions from all those dreary business dealings.