Dracula episode 1 review: The Blood Is The Life

Jonathan Rhys Meyers was born to play Dracula, if only the rest of the show could keep up with him. Here's Laura's review of episode one...

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 The Blood is the Life

When Jonathan Rhys Meyers signed on to do The Tudors, I had my doubts. With a couple of degrees in Renaissance studies, I’m tough to please when it comes to narratives set in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. And how on earth did a skinny and somewhat effeminate guy who seems to have stopped aging at 25 and who falls short of 5’10 expect to pull off playing twenty years at the end of the life of a he-man known to tower above the rest of his court while sporting a waistline almost three quarters his own height? It wasn’t just improbable. It was outright laughable.

And yet, by the end of the first episode, and ignoring the exaggerated age difference always depicted between Catherine of Aragon and Henry, I was sold. Sure, the lavish costumes, expert actors, frequent bed-mauling, and gorgeous sets helped. But in the end, the entire project rested squarely on Meyers’s shoulders. And what he knew he couldn’t deliver on physically had to be made up for  in other ways – namely by nailing the twisted, paranoid, arrogant, but still charismatic quality of one of the most compelling kings to sit on the English throne.

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So when they announced that he would be playing the titular vampire in NBC’s new 10-episode series Dracula, I had few worries. Meyers might be a stretch as a massive monarch, but he was built to play the seductive and dangerous count. No wonder NBC chose to skip the pilot process on Cole Haddon’s creation and go straight into production. With a team of producers that included Gareth Neame (Downton Abbey), Emmy winner Colin Callender, Tony Krantz (Sports Night, 24), Dracula is poised to become a hit.

Unfortunately, if this first episode is anything to go on, Meyers—good as he is—may not be able to overcome two very serious obstacles to the show’s success: bad writing and lacklustre acting.

Set almost exclusively in Victorian England, the episode opens with Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann) awakening Dracula from a centuries-long sleep by slitting the throat and feeding him the blood of an avaricious but apparently otherwise innocent man.

I’ll let you take a moment to read that again.

The grand-dad of all vampire hunters brings the biggest and baddest of the breed back from the grave… literally. That’s quite the twist, and we hold our breath waiting to learn why, because this is going to be epic, right?

Because some group called the Order of the Dragon (think the Knights Templar, only actually guilty of everything they were accused of back in the fourteenth century) killed both Van Helsing’s family and Dracula’s wife. So of course they’re going to join forces, have an occasional but quickly mended spat or two, and then become the next great bro-mance.

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If only it got better from there.

The Order has now moved from using the Church to cover its evil to allowing late-nineteenth century capitalism and industry to cloak its doings. In order to thwart and bring down the captains of industry and immolation, Dracula turns up in England disguised as a young American businessman who has a near-miracle to share: technology capable of transmitting electricity wirelessly. Lends a bit of steampunk to the already confused narrative.

Dracula reveals this scientific breakthrough (meant to eventually bankrupt the bad guys) during a party where the rest of the more traditional Bram Stoker characters appear: Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the journalist, is escorting medical student Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw) and un-Victorian flirt Lucy Westenra (Katie McGrath) to a party at the home of Dracula’s alter-ego Alexander Grayson. Renfield (Nonso Anozie) oversees the festivities, which most people appear to have come to out of curiosity or a desire to insult the American “interloper.” And Mina – who just happens to be the spitting image of Dracula’s dead wife – is, of course, immediately drawn to the mysterious American, while Dracula seems a touch too blasé about the incarnation of his wife who’s randomly shown up at his party.

The next thirty minutes include a murder, a rooftop fight, a head in a box, an evil-kickboxing-vampire-hunting-blonde (who also apparently enjoys a good fingering by the undead), and Ben Miles of all people, who seems to be playing one of the worst of the Dragonians, a man named Browning (a possible reference to Tod Browning, director of the 1931 Bela Lugosi Dracula?). For a series so determined to play it straight, Dracula reads more on paper as camp than horror or adventure. It was like the show was conceived over a drunken game of Cards Against Humanity.

Now, nothing says that you can’t reimagine a well-known story. Sherlock has proven that in spades. But if you’re going to run that risk, you need to offer a clear vision and a compelling story. Thus far, Dracula lacks both. But then it’s hard to be surprised that the writing here is such an obvious mess and miss. Cole Haddon’s experience in writing for the screen is practically non-existent and his co-writer Rebecca Kirsch’s last real gig was as an assistant on Leverage, a show of dubious quality, especially in the later part of the run on which she primarily worked.

Still, even the most ridiculous of stories (and dialogue) can sometimes be redeemed by a great cast. Unfortunately, while Meyers, Kretschmann, and Anozie put in solid performances, the rest of the ensemble seems a little flat. Lucy is one-note, Mina seems only vaguely aware of her surroundings, and Jonathan’s best quality is that he’s not being played by Keanu Reeves this time round.

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You’re probably sensing that I’m disappointed.

None of this means that the series is beyond hope. But the final thing that struck me about Dracula was how languid it felt – and not in a good way. The pacing is near-glacial at times, which is a real issue in a short ten-episode arc like this one. There’s no time to mess about with atmospherics (one of the few things the show’s doing well). You need a strong concept and a tight story. At this point, it has neither.

Still, it’s a role Meyers was born to play and it’s that which will ensure NBC an audience for at least a few more episodes. Shirtless, smoldering, and seductive as hell, he’s something to watch in action. Here’s to hoping they give him the writing and supporting cast that allows us to enjoy him for far more than that. Both he, and Dracula, deserve better than what we’ve seen so far.

Read Bela Lugosi to Buffy: 10 very different on-screen Draculas, here.

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