And now for part two of “Don’t Touch That Dial,” a seasonal series in which I, your friendly neighborhood television addict, break down some of the shows screaming for your attention. In this very special episode we’re covering new SFF shows: Dracula, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, and The Tomorrow People. Be warned, these reviews contain moderate SPOILERS—nothing worse than what you’d get by checking out the show’s summary on its network site, but still, don’t come into this post expecting to keep your televisual virginity intact.
The Road So Far: NBC’s remake (Fri 10p) of Bram Stoker’s Dracula follows a similar trajectory as the novel but two steps to the left. In the TV version, Van Helsing raises Dracula—aka Vlad the Impaler—from his entombed prison and strikes a bargain with the demon to help him bring down the Order of the Dragon, some sort of Knights Templar/Illuminati/Masons/Men of Letters cabal with incalculable wealth and power. The Order killed Van Helsing and Dracula’s families for reasons yet to be explained, so they team up to destroy the group from the inside out. Dracula takes on the guise of a wealthy American entrepreneur come to England with his intriguing new invention, but is thrown for a loop when he encounters young med student Mina Murray, who happens to be the spitting image of his late wife. With the help of Renfield, his gentleman’s gentleman, he insinuates himself into her life through her poor journalist boyfriend, Jonathan Harker. Lucy Westenra pops in every now and again to remind the audience that the Victorians liked garish color schemes.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: I love Stoker’s Dracula. I’ve read it several times all the way through (including my first time at church by hiding it in the hymnal during sermons), even the über boring bits where he goes on Herman Melville-esque descriptive tangents that add nothing to the plot and are a painful slogs to get through. Nosferatu is one of my favorite films, I absolutely adore the Bela Lugosi version, and I’m only half ashamed to say I saw Dracula 2000 in the theatre. Stoker didn’t invent the vampire subgenre (that honor goes to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novel Carmilla), but he did something spectacular with it: he used it as a commentary on Victorian society, as a way of condemning loose morality and a corrupted society.
And then there’s the whole American business tycoon thing, which would be odd if it weren’t so unnecessary. Meyers’ atrocious accent isn’t helping matters, either. The plot point is a lot like packing peanuts without a box: pointless, messy, and a pain in the butt to deal with. As it stands, the electromagnetic whazzit is so fantastical and ridiculous that I kind of wish they’d just gone full on alternate history or steampunk rather than try to wedge it into the real world timeline. The lack of chemistry between any of the actors makes every scene a grind to get through. It’s jarring coming from a show like Sleepy Hollow or Supernatural where the cast were madly in love with each other from the get go to this where I feel like they all disappear into their own trailers as soon as the director yells “Cut!” When even the softcore porn sex scenes are boring, you know you have a problem.
TL;DR: If I was the kind of person who made puns, I’d say the Dracula remake is toothless.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
The Road So Far: The undead Agent Phil Coulson emerges from hiding to pull together a special team to deal with the unknown, the unclassifiable, and the downright weird in ABC’s first foray into a Joss Whedon show (Tues 8p).The non-super team he assembles (pun intended) are your basic tropes—the straight man, the tough-as-nails woman, the sexy hacker, and genius scientists—and they fight the fights the actual Avengers don’t have time for.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: I’ll admit I kinda forgot S.H.I.E.L.D. was still on the air until I started compiling shows for this post (doesn’t help that it airs opposite The Originals, which I’m now completely addicted to). Then again, I’m still angry over ABC’s FOX-like treatment of Pushing Daisies, and it’s rare that anything they produce in the SFF realm ever hits enough marks for me to keep me watching. Honestly, had Joss Whedon not been involved, I probably wouldn’t have even caught the pilot. I know a lot of people are going to counter my feelings of meh with “But Buffy wasn’t very good when it premiered!” Which, yes, true, the Buffy pilot kinda sucked, and the first two seasons struggled with consistency in quality, but the concept was sound, acting improving, and its heart was strong. I didn’t sense any of that in the S.H.I.E.L.D. premiere.
It feels like someone made a Joss Whedon Template and hit all the marks, but missed his soul. The characters are fine, but a little dull and/or tropetastic. I have little interest in anything anyone has to say beyond Maria Hill, and Coulson works better as a spice that adds flavor rather than as a staple. The rest are a pile of “sure, fine, whatever.” The Superhero of the Week format works, mostly because it runs concurrently with The Avengers timeline. The notion of watching the “little people” deal with the day-to-day operations of keeping an organization like S.H.I.E.L.D. functioning and picking up the scraps the bosses can’t be bothered to handle is nifty, but it all feels so…ABC. Like Once Upon a Time, the writers rely too much on the how cool an idea is and not enough on pushing that idea through to reality. The fight scenes are exciting, but you can’t have a whole show of just Melinda May kicking ass (on second thought, that sounds awesome). I don’t want the show to take itself too seriously, but it would be nice if they felt a little sense of urgency in their adventures. The show is one shrug away from putting it’s feet up on the coffee table and taking a nap. S.H.I.E.L.D. has a massive universe of supes to pull from (Graviton! Hydra! Chitauri!), so you’d think someone would be at least a little invested in their job. The show’s gotten progressively better with each installment, but I still just don’t care. Call me at the misdeason premiere.
TL;DR: It’s kinda like watching the rest of the slayers do grunt work back at the castle while Buffy and the Scoobies are off having real adventures.
Once Upon A Time In Wonderland
The Road So Far: The limited-run spinoff of Once Upon a Time (ABC, Thu 9p) opens with Victorian era Alice awaiting a lobotomy in a mental hospital. Her father had her committed after she claimed she had traveled down a rabbit hole into another world where she fell in love with a genie who was then killed by the evil Red Queen. Can’t blame pops for not believing his kid, frankly. Alice is broken-hearted over the loss of her One True Love and is about to consent to getting her brain wiped when the White Rabbit turns up and tells her lover boy is still alive, albeit held hostage by Alice’s nemesis. She returns to Wonderland and sets about a reverse damsel-in-distress quest to save her genie and battle evil.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: When I reviewed OUaT last year, my biggest complaint was how boring it was. For the most part, Wonderland suffers the same issues, but in some key spoilery ways it also doesn’t. At first glance, it seems like a mashup of Lewis Carroll and Aladdin, but the fantasy rules aren’t the same. You’d think the freedom to creatively break the rules would be a good thing, but all the writers have done is simply cherrypick a bunch of fantasy tropes from various sources and hodgepodge them together with the middle school book report version of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. It’s one thing to add to the fantasy bestiary. It’s another to dump in a bunch of pissy fairies and call them “Silvermist.” The break from Disney regulations (and Carroll’s world) adds more flexibility to the characters and worldbuilding, however it still doesn’t fix the problem of meh storytelling.
But give credit where credit’s due. Both shows are female-centric, female empowered, chock full of racial diversity, and, when they dare be so bold, are deliciously trashy and campy. I’m still torn as to whether Wonderland is better (read: more entertaining and well-constructed) or worse than its parent, and I can’t decide whether or not I’ll even keep watching. But I don’t hate what I’ve seen so far, and since it’s only a single-season show, the inconvenience isn’t that great. John Lithgow is always excellent, but Naveen Andrews’ Jafar is a love-hate role. You’re either going to revel in his moustache-twirling cackling evilness or it’ll make you want to throw things at the screen, sometimes both in the same scene. And don’t even get me started of the awful CGI. At least in Wonderland it feels more realistically absurd; the rabbit hole world is such a dreamscape anyway that the bad CGI comes off as intentional rather than just cheaply done.
TL;DR: A third of the time Once Upon a Time is endearing fun, a third is sleep-inducingly boring, and another third is teeth-achingly saccharine to the point of insipidity. Wonderland isn’t far from its parent’s mark.
The Tomorrow People
The Road So Far: In this Americanized remake of a British show, there are two species of humans, the normal people and the Tomorrow People (CW, Wed 9p). This superpowered group has mastered the three T’s: teleportation, telekinesis, and telepathy; downside is they can’t kill. But not everyone thinks their abilities are cool. Ultra, a secret, sinister organization, is dedicated to rooting out the superhumans and either de-supering them or blackmailing them into joining the organization as a soldier. Ultra is run by the ruthless and calculating Dr. Jedikiah Price, a man who thinks nothing of killing what he considers to be the enemies of the “real” humans. At the center of all this is Jedikiah’s nephew, Stephen, a high school student who has recently discovered his powers. Stephen goes double agent on Ultra as he works with the rest of the Tomorrow People, who are busy hiding in an underground bunker.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: There’s nothing particularly original about Tomorrow, and not just because it’s a remake of a remake (the Brits created it in the 1970s, then reduxed it in the 90s). It takes its central theme of a teenager discovering their special gifts make them the Chosen One straight out of every fantasy show already on The CW. It’s menacing, all-powerful evil cabal has been done to death for decades now, and even the abilities themselves aren’t exactly glimmering with innovation. However, it still works. Mostly. OK, only partly. There’s a lot going on in this show. The pace is always pushing forward, and exposition, when it’s done at all, tends to be more cryptic than conclusive. Mark Pellegrino is, obvs, the best thing in the show, and he flips Jedikiah seamlessly between sadistic and psychotic without resorting to scenery chewing. Robbie Amell isn’t up to his brother’s snuff (Stephen Amell from Arrow), but he’s getting braver with his acting with each ep.
Greg Berlanti has a good track record in television and shaky background on SFF. His teen drama creds go all the way back to Dawson’s Creek and Everwood, but he’s also the man responsible for No Ordinary Family and the Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern movie. Fortunately, he seems to have learned the error of his ways with the solidly entertaining Arrow. The Tomorrow People highlights both the best and worst of Berlanti’s skills. He’s got the action and drama down, but complex plotting with a long-spanning mythology aren’t his strong suits. Your mileage will vary, but you’re either going to like it or think it’s absolutely stupid and boring. Most of the time I like it, but I also fell asleep during the third ep, so, you know, expectations and all. But hey! Jason Dohring!
TL;DR: The show’s present state is good enough, but I have grave concerns about where it’s headed and what it plans to do when it gets there.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.