Game of Throats?
NBC's new Dracula reboot, which makes its debut Friday, rarely misses a chance to bite from the most life-rich of today's pop-culture veins. Rootable anti-hero (Breaking Bad), hardcore gore (The Walking Dead), upper-crust British period setting (Downton Abbey), a host of hottie blood-suckers (True Blood) — all checked off and shoehorned in with less panache than the progenitors.
Amid declining ratings and critical yelping about its lack of originality, network television routinely takes shots for its not-so-fresh feeling. The influences here are myriad, obvious, so the carping will no doubt continue. That is, if the altogether lavish production, given a deadly Friday night slot, sticks around long enough for anyone to care.
And yet, Dracula is saved from mediocrity, and maybe even swift cancelation, by its vital vampire: Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors), who plays the Artist Formerly Known as Vlad the Impaler with an ambiguous, Prince-like sexuality. If he could sing, he'd definitely bust out a slinky Purple Rain.
He's undead and loving it, posing as an American industrialist named Alexander Grayson who party-crashes uptight, snugly bodiced 1880s England. He's returned from beyond to avenge his wife's murder at the hand of something silly called the Order of the Dragon, a centuries-old council of Even Badder Dudes, hence our reason to root for a killer.
The show (produced and directed by talents associated with Downton Abbey, The Tudors and Carnivale) also successfully tweaks Bram Stoker's iconic storyline in other ways, especially in making Abraham Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann), the notorious vampire hunter, an ally of Dracula. It seems the Order of the Dragon (made up of greedy businessmen) did Van's fam wrong, too. Now the odd couple are out for revenge.
Where Dracula errs, at least in the first few episodes made available to critics, is in trying to cram too many plotlines and characters into the fray; it's a relief when the titular vamp starts gnawing through some of the cast. Thank goodness, one less name to remember! Keep biting, dude!
The ensemble is pretty, and pretty average. Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw) is Drac's obsession; she looks (cue the creepy music) like his wife. Mina, however, dates journalist Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a dirt-poor bloke trying to maneuver high society — and severely threatened by her desire to become a female doctor in the late 19th century. The two milquetoast lovers prattle on about feelings and such, and you pray that shadow watching them from around the corner has hungry fangs.
The regal environs — lamps and carriages and cobblestones — are pretty, too. But nothing is lovelier than Meyers, who beds women (including a vivacious blond slayer trying to take him down) and smooches men. His frequent kills are filmed like sex scenes, and the series' not-for-the-squeamish opening, in which Dracula is revived from his coffin slumber with a torrent of ick, is a heaving, breathless nightmare. Yikes, cable TV is an R-rated landscape, but network TV is certainly letting its guard down, too.
When the camera leaves Meyers for chunks at a time, tracking the soap-operatic travails of the rest of the gang, Dracula gets turgid, pointless. Why are we here exactly? But when we track his sexy, salivating pursuits, there's a randy fun to the proceedings, even if they're borrowed from everywhere else. Licking his lips, stroking his Prince-y facial hair, Meyer's Drac says he's just in town to "give nature a helping hand." And who knows, maybe help twice-bitten NBC, too.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter and Instagram.