New York Comic Con is known for its world premieres and this year was no exception. One fortunate audience this weekend at New York Comic Con got a chance to sit in the dark together and watch Dracula rise prior to its October 25th television debut. The panel didn’t include any of the cast or creators, but I was lucky enough to be one of those to see the episode, so I can give you the rundown on what to expect from this new NBC historical drama.
To begin, when I say historical drama, you ought to take that with a grain of salt. Though there are members from the creative team that helmed Downton Abbey on board, don’t expect much by way of historical accuracy. NBC seems to be going to a lot of trouble to root the show less in period propriety and more in steampunk-style adventures and revisionist history. London is portrayed as a lush playground where the wealthy conspire behind closed doors and a dashing young industrialist shows up to shake everything up. The industrialist is a man named Alexander Grayson and he holds a dark secret—he is Dracula, released from his prison in Romania to exact his vengeance on the world.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who cut his teeth in film and headlining shows like The Tudors, plays Dracula/Grayson. Employing a heck of an American accent that sounds strange and not entirely charming, Meyers teams with the fabulous Nonso Anozie as his butler Renfield to take on a rogue organization hiding behind high society. This group is known as the Ordo Dracul, or the Order of the Dragon, and Dracula is on a vendetta to end their secret society for slights done to him hundreds of years ago. To do it, he’s willing to team up with the most unlikely of allies and use whatever means necessary to destroy them. He gathers up all of London society for a ball, and it’s there he spots Ms. Mina Murray for the first time. And so, our tale begins.
Anyone familiar with the traditional Dracula story can spot the core tenants of the show shining through the new packaging. Dracula is still the sexy, night-stalking vampire who finds victims in the dark for his blood-drinking needs. Yet the show gives Meyers the opportunity to spread his wings a little bit and make the Grayson-Dracula his own, to mixed results. Meyers spends entirely too much time explaining things rather than acting, a problem which leaves a lot of the pilot feeling flat. Since it is a pilot, however, one might be willing to give him a little time to grow into his fangs and cape. The changes to the other characters around him, however, are more jarring. Renfield isn’t the stumbling, stuttering madman but a calm and collected valet who serves as Dracula’s sounding board and confidant. Lucy Westenra (played by Merlin alum Katie McGrath) is still the bratty belle of the ball, but Mina Murray has evolved from a gothic novel love interest into a modern heroine. She is now a medical student, girlfriend of London reporter Jonathan Harker, and what you might consider a thoroughly forward-thinking woman for her time—maybe even too modern to be believable.
Yet for all the changes, Mina’s character isn’t the most anachronistic for the setting. Among the new characters we meet is Lady Jane (played by Victoria Smurfit), a society woman who isn’t at all the retiring, demure lady you’d expect. Smurfit trades insults as well as steamy interludes with Dracula before traipsing off to a meeting of her boss in the Order in almost James Bond-like fashion. Except the show doesn’t make it clear if we’re meant to root for Lady Jane and her secret society. In fact, the pilot doesn’t seem to have a favored side for the audience to fall on. Dracula is portrayed as sympathetic in the extreme, making it easy to lose sight of the fact that in the original piece, Dracula was an understandable monster, but a monster nonetheless.
The episode itself seemed to set up more than it answered, creating a framework for everything the series is promising: sexy vampires, strange science, ancient grudges and lots of blood drinking. But there’s also the slow motion action sequences and the show’s irreverent way of gutting a classic and injecting whatever might make it appeal to modern audiences. It’s that update that makes the show equally intriguing and perhaps in danger of being too ridiculous. Meyers could have settled that question by virtue of his performance, but even his portrayal feels uneven and unsure, as if he’s still getting his legs under him as Dracula. The pilot ends with a sense that the show is asking the audience to suspend their disbelief not only in regards to mad science and thousand-year old feuds, but in regards to the future of the project.
During the screening, a voice in the audience piped up derisively, “I’ll give it two seasons.” Sadly, it may be fan reactions like that which keep down this intriguing new show. Despite its odd, unsure tone, Dracula could be a fun addition to the NBC Friday night lineup, filling out the roster behind fan-favorite Grimm. If folks do stick around after Grimm, they will have to decide if they’re willing to suspend what they know about the monster known as Dracula to go along for this ride. I for one hope they do, as the show has at least the potential to reinterpret a classic. If nothing else, we get Meyers as a sexy Dracula, and that might could take the show a long way. The verdict after the screening: it’s just too early to tell.
Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and ReImaginedReality.com.