Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Pilot Season: Dracula (I'm Watching It for Lucy and Lady Jane)

Well, I guess it’s time. Time for what, you ask? Time to talk about a show that by all rights I should have lots of opinions on, only I don’t. Not yet at least. So, let’s talk about Dracula, and maybe by talking to all of you, dear internets, I’ll be able to figure out what the poop I think of it.

So, first things first, Dracula is the new NBC drama that stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the titular vampire, Katie McGrath as Lucy Westenra, Jessica De Gouw as Mina Murray, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Jonathan Harker.

Loosely (and I really do mean loosely) based on the original Dracula novel by Bram Stoker, the show follows the famous Count as he wakes up from his undead slumber and travels to London, where, for reasons presumably plot related, he pretends to be an American industrialist named Alexander Grayson and decides to introduce Tesla’s idea of the magnetosphere and free power to modern London, thereby disrupting an oil monopoly held by some shady corporate figures that may or may not have murdered his wife several centuries ago. A wife, mind, that he thinks has been reincarnated as Mina Murray, lovely and sweet medical student.

Whew. That’s kind of a lot.

And herein lies one of the more thorny problems in Dracula. It’s not that anything involved in the story is actually bad, per se, more that there’s just so freaking much of it that the story is kind of hard to follow. Grayson starts his campaign by hosting a big party for all of the London elite. Mina, Jonathan and Lucy are at the party, and they see when “Grayson” unveils his new power source. But Grayson needs a set of patents for a new coolant to make the power source really work, and so he leverages a board member’s gambling debts against him to become a controlling interest in the company that owns the patents.

He also kills the man, because the guy was rude, and I guess Dracula and Hannibal Lecter have the same principles when it comes to murder: we only eat the rude.

Dracula’s not just targeting these men financially, though. He’s after something deeper. All of the men (and woman) he’s targeted belong to the board of directors at this oil company, and all of them are, he suspects, members of the Order of the Dragon. We’re then led to believe that this Order is devoted to hunting down and killing vampires, and with the death of one of their own, they’re now on the watch for a vampire in London.

As for Ms. Murray, Dracula doesn’t seem to have any specific plan for what to do. He wasn’t expecting to run into his dead wife’s doppleganger in London, nor was he expecting her to be in love with a penniless journalist and rather strong-minded for the time. We’re not clear yet on where he’s going to take his obsession with Mina, but I’m going to venture a guess and say probably nowhere good.

But I think you get what I mean here: the whole show is so overstuffed with potentially interesting things that you sort of lose track of them and end up feeling a little blah and confused when it’s over. The emotional core of the plot is lost in a sea of neat settings and trade details, sort of like, forgive the comparison, The Phantom Menace. In that movie, the real problem had to do with how over-full it was. Any of the individual segments could have been its own movie, but because we kept moving around, we never really got to understand any of it, and the movie sucked. So too here.

Now, I would be remiss in reviewing this show if I didn’t point out the actual thing that is most definitely going in its favor, and that is the minor characters. I get that this is weird, especially when we’ve got Jonathan Rhys Meyers at the helm, but the minor characters are really what hold this show together.

Katie McGrath’s Lucy Westenra, for one, is no more the simpering idiot of the book, but now a headstrong, shallow, keen-eyed, and incredibly bitchy girlfriend of Mina’s. Lucy isn’t deep by any means, but that doesn’t mean she’s stupid, and McGrath makes it clear that there is a very big difference between vapid and dumb. Just because Lucy is unrepentantly materialistic and obsessed with society doesn’t make her any less of a firm adversary or a good friend for that matter. And honestly, the changes to the Lucy/Dracula dynamic that come from this character shift are all really interesting to me. I look forward to more of that, definitely.

Another cool improvement? Renfield, played by Nonso Anozie, is much more than the bug-eating crazy person of the book and several of the movies. As far as we know, he doesn’t actually eat bugs here, which is probably a good thing because that is super gross. No, here Renfield is Dracula’s trusted manservant and assistant. He’s got a wit about him, and enough will to occasionally object to his master’s plans. He doesn’t ever stop them, mind, but he does point out the areas of stupid, and serves as a really good foil to the ever suave Dracula. Also, it’s always nice to see a man of color show up in a period piece. Just saying.

And then we’ve got Lady Jane (Victoria Smurfit), one of the more nuanced femme fatales we’ve gotten on TV in the past few years. Lady Jane is a couple of things all at the same time. She’s a businesswoman in an era where women never invade the boardroom, an unmarried woman with her own wealth and comfort in her station, a member of the Order of the Dragon, and Dracula’s hookup buddy.

She’s a complicated lady.

Which is great. Lady Jane isn’t a good guy, not really, but she’s also not cartoonishly evil. And while she does certainly play up the whole, “I’m an independent woman which means that heck yes I have sex and lots of it!” card, you kind of can’t blame her for it. In flaunting society’s rules as appearing as an unmarried woman of industry, you can kind of figure that she’d just end up breaking all the rules she could think of.

Plus, having one of Dracula’s enemies be both a love interest and also pretty sympathetic? It’s a good idea. Because here’s the thing about the whole plot so far: it is incredibly hard to figure out who to root for. I mean, Dracula’s got a point, that if the Order of the Dragon did just go around murdering nice vampire ladies like his wife, then they probably aren’t very nice to be around and maybe should go away. But then again, we are taking the word of an immortal serial killer on this “they’re the bad guys” thing, and it seems to make sense that keeping the vampires out of London is probably a good idea. So, in short, I have no idea who to root for, and that’s kind of good and bad.

On the good side, the show has a complex enough plot and moral system that it’s hard to make snap judgments. On the bad side, the show is so complicated that we’re one episode in and I want a flow chart.

Which brings us back to the pilot episode and the pilot episode’s incredibly perplexing plot. I’m not saying the plot was bad, exactly. Not really. Just – I don’t get it. Like, any of it. Why is Dracula pretending to be American? Does that matter? Because so far all it means for the story is that we’re being subjected to Rhys Meyers’ American accent, and that is on par with Charlie Hunnam’s accent in the first season of Sons of Anarchy. Which is to say, bad.

For that matter, why is Dracula concerning himself with electricity at all? Surely there are easier ways of financially ruining a bunch of old white men. He could do it. If he’s capable of coming up with a scheme that involves old Tesla inventions, I’m sure he could figure out how to do it without the weird electricity and coolant and other vague scientific things that we don’t care about.

And then there are the little questions: Why is Van Hellsing helping Dracula and also why is he teaching anatomy at a local university? It’s kind of random. Why are Mina and Jonathan taking so long in getting married? It’s super obvious that they love each other, after all. And why the everloving crap does every show feel the need to throw in Jack the Ripper? Like, is it a law that any show set in Victorian London must mention the Ripper or face public shunning?

But overall, I think I like it. I mean, I’m still not sure about the whole thing, and I find that the main plot is really my least favorite component, but I still think I like it. I find the story potentially amusing, and I really love the side characters, so we’ll see what happens.

Mostly? I’m really happy that this show exists, if only for the way the female characters appear. Because not a one, not a single one, is one-dimensional. They all have lives and feelings and outside functions. They are not bound to the plot, but exist outside of it, only stepping in when their paths collide. And I like that. I like that Mina is a medical student, and that she faces deep hostility in academia, but is overcoming it. I like that Lady Jane is a businesswoman and also a vampire hunter. And I love that Lucy is a shallow bitch who knows she is and doesn’t care. I like all of them, and I think they’re all worth tuning in for.

Well, writing that out did seem to help. I would say then that my official diagnosis is as follows: the show is weird, confusing, and a bit overstuffed. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Watch it if only for the female characters (and Renfield), and let’s see if it improves. If it doesn’t at least we will have gotten some juicy Lucy quotes out of the deal.


  1. My favorite violinist teamed up with Dracula for a promo music video. :D

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