As is usually the case when I start a new series (especially one I’m looking forward to), the first episode is something of a nail-biter. Will it be good? Will it live up to my lofty expectations? Or will it be so profoundly disappointing that I spend the rest of the week pining over what should have been? These are the types of questions that usually haunt my viewing experience, and such was indeed the case as I began watching the premiere of NBC’s Dracula.
Fortunately, all of my fears were misplaced. The series was an unmitigated pleasure, and I literally cannot wait until the next episode.
Part of this, I suspect, comes from the fact that the series is produced in part by Carnival, the same company responsible for one of my other favourite television treats, Downton Abbey. Although American network TV can produce series with incredibly low production values, NBC seems to have struck a gold mine here, not just in terms of the sets and scenery (although those are gorgeous in and of themselves), but also in the casting of Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the titular Dracula. He actually does a passably good American accent (this Dracula is masquerading as an American industrialist), and his smoldering good looks serve him in good stead. What’s more, he seems to have largely shaken the rather hammy style of acting that sometimes threatened to undercut his otherwise compelling portrayal of Henry VIII in The Tudors.
NBC’s Dracula takes the already-overdone story and adds some twists that actually affirmatively answer the question: do we really need another rendition of Bram Stoker’s novel? The series manages to weave together horror, suspense, mystery, and thriller in some new and unexpected ways. Chief among these is the fact that the character of Abraham Van Helsing who, rather than being Dracula’s nemesis, is instead his collaborator against the shadowy, corrupt, and very powerful Order of the Dragon. From what we have seen so far, he seems like a man as ruthless and vengeful as his vampire compatriot, which is rather a refreshing change from the way in which he is usually portrayed.
The female characters also come in for some reimaginging, as Mina is now a medical student under the tutelage of Dr. Van Helsing, though there are already inklings that she may in fact be Dracula’s former wife reincarnated. Lucy also makes an appearance, though it remains to be seen how large of a role she will play and how closely the series will adhere to the novel (most likely probably not that closely, which may be for the best). Most fascinating, however, is Lady Jane, whose motivations remain somewhat shadowy but who, nevertheless, threatens to steal the show from its titular character. It seems that Dracula may be investing as much energy in its female leads as it does its male ones, always a good sign in network television.
Fortunately, Dracula doesn’t answer too many of the questions that it raises in the premiere episode. We still don’t know that much about the Order of the Dragon, and thus they continue to haunt the edges of the episode, much as Dracula himself haunts the shadowy corners of London’s streets. We get the sense that they have been running a secret war against vampire kind for a while (it turns out that, in the series’ universe, the Jack the Ripper murders were actually committed by a vampire, and the Order mutilated the bodies in order to keep the rest of London from discovering the truth). Although we know that they wield an immense amount of power (due to their control over oil), we don’t know that much about them, and that is an auspicious start. It will give us something to inquire after as the series progresses (let’s just hope that they don’t reveal too much too soon, a perennial problem of network TV, given the uncertainty of future seasons).
What emerges from the premiere of Dracula, therefore, is a series that is, perhaps, too aesthetically and narratively sophisticated and mature for the network TV crowd. Indeed, as I was watching “The Blood is the Life,” I could not shake the feeling that I was watching an HBO or Showtime series (which may have something to do with the fact that the director, Steve Shill, also directed episodes of Dexter and The Tudors). However, it just might be the case that network TV is finally ready to grow up and produce drama that is mature enough for adults to handle (which may explain why NBC decided to schedule the series for Friday nights). And I’m not just talking about the blood, though there was a lot of that. Instead, there is a gloss and a tightness to the writing that suggests that this series may mark a sea change in the way in which network TV functions. To wit, perhaps it’s time that network TV took a page from the book of the pay stations like HBO and Showtime, and started focusing more on quality rather than quantity. After all, today’s savvy TV consumer, with quality entertainment now available in a wide variety of forms–such as pay channels and Netflix–is not as ready to settle for substandard fare. Although there are other concept series that are compelling (Once Upon a Time comes to mind), they face the same dilemma faced by so many other network TV shows, namely, too many episodes and net enough story. Perhaps Dracula means a reversal of this trend, but at this point it’s entirely too early to determine with any certainty.
Regardless, one thing at this point is entirely certain. Dracula is an entertaining drama that is surprisingly good. Does it have its flaws? Certainly, but they are minor compared to the great strengths that were on display in the premiere. The real challenge for the series and tis writers, however, lies in maintaining that quality and ensuring that the season as a whole matches or exceeds it. We’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed that they do.