Tuned In: ‘Dracula’ rises again in new prime-time series

By Rob Owen
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 24, 2013

It’s from the same production company as “Downton Abbey,” but make no mistake: NBC’s “Dracula” is no “Downton Dracula.”

While the settings are somewhat similar — “Dracula” is set in London in the late 19th century; “Downton Abbey” is set a couple of decades later; both shows share a producer in Gareth Neame — there’s enough bodice ripping and jugular tearing in “Dracula” to give “Downton’s” Dowager Duchess the vapors.

Directed by Steve Shill, who filmed “The Kill Point” in Pittsburgh, tonight’s “Dracula” pilot makes a pleasant, if pulpy, introduction to the series. Next week’s episode ups the stakes with more unexpected twists and turns.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers (“The Tudors”) stars as the title character, who, in this telling, masquerades as American entrepreneur Alexander Grayson. He seeks vengeance on Londoners who are members of the Order of the Dragon, a latter-day 99-percenters club that cursed him with immortality.

Newcomer Cole Haddon wrote the pilot, based on the original Bram Stoker story, but he takes plenty of liberties with the plot — no spoilers on the most radical deviation — and invents a whole new story of Dracula posing as the purveyor of a new, renewable source of electricity. Dracula/Grayson seeks to derail gas barons a century before anyone really worried about the impact/longevity of fossil fuels.

Plenty of characters from the Stoker novel are present, if sometimes altered, including Dracula’s manservant Renfield (Nonso Anozie), journalist Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw) and Professor Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann).

Although Mr. Haddon wrote the pilot, showrunner Daniel Knauf puts his fingerprints on the series in his script for episode two. Mr. Knauf is best known for HBO’s bizarre, glacially paced “Carnivale,” and his dark, twisty approach to storytelling shows up when Dracula beds one woman but imagines her as Mina, who resembles his late wife. Mr. Knauf’s script also sends Dracula to a drag show at a Victorian-era gay club.

The conspiracy of the Order of the Dragon could grow tiresome, but the group is headed by the intriguing Lady Jayne Wetherby (Victoria Smurfit), who trains in her own Victorian-era gym where she holds a vampire prisoner. She also deploys “seers” to ferret out the identity of the vampire she’s sure has shown up in her neighborhood. It’s a little loopy and a lot anachronistic, but darn if it doesn’t work in this particular mix.

What doesn’t work so well is the notion of Mina as Dracula’s long lost love. Flashbacks depict Dracula and Mina being terrorized; in the present, she’s in a relationship with Harker. But the show does little to develop the Mina character. She’s not that interesting, especially when viewed alongside Lady Jayne.

“Dracula” takes itself and Grayson’s weird obsession with “geomagnetic technology” seriously — although a demonstration of the technology in the premiere isn’t explained or developed through the next two episodes — but Mr. Meyers brings a twinkle to his eye that allows just enough humor into the show to prevent it from becoming stuffy.

“I was afraid as an American you might not understand the meaning of the word discreet,” says a Londoner.

“I had to look it up,” Grayson replies.

Kudos to Mr. Meyers for a fantastic American accent that is precise and, on occasion, effectively chilling.

In addition to Mr. Knauf, another writer on the show, co-executive producer Harley Peyton, also comes with an intriguing pedigree: He was a writer/producer on “Twin Peaks.” Nothing in “Dracula” is as unique or as wonderfully weird as “Twin Peaks,” and “Dracula” plows through plot more quickly, introducing and then writing off several intriguing plots and characters within its first three episodes. It’s too soon to say whether that will turn out to be wise or foolhardy, but “Dracula” at least gets off to a mildly promising start.

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