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“Dracula” Review–“Of Monsters and Men”

Once again, this week’s episode of NBC’s Dracula indicates that the series’ writers have finally found their stride, as the many different plot threads have finally begun to converge in something verging on legibility.  In tonight’s episode, Lucy finally confesses her feelings for Mina, Dracula almost manages to survive in the sun, Jonathan faces off against Lord Davenport, and Mina discovers some unsettling truths about her mentor Dr. Van Helsing.

For starters, I have to announce myself somewhat pleasantly surprised by the sensitivity with which the series dealt with Lucy’s feelings for her friend Mina.  While one may doubt the sincerity of Lady Jayne’s claim that she too has had affairs with multiple women–a comment she makes after having invited Lucy to tea–there is no doubt of the depth of emotion that Lucy feels for Mina.  The scene in which she confesses her love to her friend, and Mina’s subsequent horrified rejection, is more emotionally genuine and heartbreaking than anything we have yet seen in the series.  However, it does make one wonder whether Lucy’s spurned jealousy will manifest itself in some more dangerous form, especially as there is every indication that Mina may soon transfer her attentions to Dracula.

Speaking of Lady Jayne, she continues to delight as someone whose motives remain curiously opaque.  The series suggests that she may be genuinely in love with the dashing and dangerous Grayson/Dracula, but she also has an edge to her made all the more obvious by her manipulation of Lucy into confessing her feelings for Mina.  Does she hope that by doing so she will be able to disrupt the obvious attraction between Mina and Grayson?  If so, that doesn’t appear to be happening, as Mina is nothing short of horrified and terribly disturbed by Mina’s confession.  But who knows?  Perhaps her feelings for her friend are indeed more than merely platonic.  And what of Lady Jayne’s feelings for Grayson?  Is she really in love with him, or is she merely in lust?  The series seems to love playing with and constantly deferring our expectations, which it will probably continue to do right up until the end.

The real showpiece of tonight’s episode, however, was Dracula’s continuing quest to walk in the sunlight.  No matter how many times he fails, he continues to hope that Van Helsing will be able to allow him to gain that which relies tantalizingly out of reach.  After a very viscerally disturbing scene in which he is punctured by needles in an attempt to provide enough pressure to circulate the sun-proof serum throughout his system–one of the moments in which the series comes closest to the disturbing visuals of the horror genre–he attends a noonday meeting of his business.  Although at first the serum protects him from the destruction of the sun, it’s not long before we see the signs of strain.  It would also appear that, despite all of his efforts, members of the Order are not convinced that he is not a vampire.  Witness, for example, Davenport’s attempts to delay his departure.  Needless to say, Dracula suffers more than a little disfigurement, but it’s nothing that a little blood drinking can’t solve.

As always, both Van Helsing and Davenport continue to hold up their own own miniature plot lines fairly well, with van Helsing nearly murdering Mina after she discovers his experiments (though he relents upon discovering that mother’s death has left her with a desire to cure death), and Davenport being as subtly and venomously villainous as always.  Davenport, though not the big bad of this series, nevertheless holds his own as he continues to pursue any means necessary to bring about the end of Grayson.  Though he will probably also meet his end at the hands of everyone’s favorite vampire, it will be a shame to see him go.

All in all, tonight’s episode was a tightly-woven foray into the worlds of politics and science. It managed to deftly balance these two elements with the interpersonal drama that remains its strongest storytelling attribute.  If every subsequent episode could be as smoothly integrated as this one–and if it had been so from the beginning–the series might be more successful than it currently is.  However, there is hope that with this improved storytelling, the series might get a little more breathing-room to explore the full complexity of its universe.

Review-“Dracula”-“The Devil’s Waltz”

Well, it seems that NBC’s Dracula might have finally hit its stride.  In tonight’s episode, we not only got to see a lot more of the brutality we expect from Dracula, but also gained a glimpse into his past with Renfield.  Meanwhile, Mina finds herself growing dissatisfied with the changes in Jonathan, and both Lucy and Lady Jayne discover the painful truth that their loves do not return their feelings.

Tonight’s episode picked up right where we left off two week’s ago, with Renfield held captive and tortured in order to gain information about Grayson/Dracula’s potential weaknesses.  In the process, we learn that Dracula once saved him from certain death at the hands of some racist thugs and, as a result, he has maintained steadfastly loyal to his employer through all of their trials and travails together.  Indeed, so powerful is his loyalty that no amount of torture (and some of it is quite graphic and obviously excruciating) can tear the knowledge from him.  Dracula, true to form, rescues his companion and, in one of the episode’s most touching scenes, he even nurses him back to health.  The relationship between these two men is shaping up to, to me at least, to be much more affecting and meaningful than that we between any of the men and women of the series.

However, I would also like to note that the torture scenes with Renfield carried some very troubling racial overtones, especially as the tortures were being carried out by a white woman.  Again, I’m not entirely certain that the series had anything definitive in mind with this representational strategy, but it does conjure up many unfortunate overtones, especially for American audiences, that we would do well to be cognizant, and critical of these issues when they come up in popular culture.  Just because we like to delude ourselves into believing that we magically live in a postracial society does not mean that scenes like this do not carry with them the baggage of centuries of oppressive strategies of representation.

Indeed, the strength of tonight’s episode stems in no small part from the fact that it emphasized the interpersonal relationships rather than the political and social plot lines that, as I have noted before, have never seemed all that compelling or convincing.  Although Lady Jayne’s appearance in tonight’s episode was belated–she only briefly shows up at Mina and Jonathan’s engagement party–it still managed to convey to us the depth of her feeling for Grayson/Dracula.  For all of her formidable appearance and fighting abilities, it would seem that she has allowed herself to develop some dangerous and potentially deadly feelings for this mysterious American.  Nor have these feelings gone unnoticed by the other members of the Order.  It remains to be seen, of course, whether her feelings of love will turn (as they so quickly can) into those of absolute hatred, especially as it has become obvious to everyone that Dracula’s interest in Mina is more than just of a benevolent benefactor.

The one plotline that continues to taunt us, however, is the obvious attraction that Lucy feels for her friend Mina.  Dracula continues to toy with us on this one, constantly showing us just enough of a glance to suggest Lucy’s inner turmoil at the sight of her beloved walking into the arms a man.  At this point, I’m not exactly sure what the series is going for in this particular love triangle, especially as Lucy has not really been given enough of a personality or development as a character to make us all that invested in what happens to her.  The cynical side of me wants to say that it is for the lesbian-love titillation factor that is so downright icky, but perhaps they have something better planned for the three of them.  There’s certainly a lot they could do, but we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed that they actually get around to doing them.

All in all, tonight was definitely one of, if not the strongest episodes that I have seen so far.  They managed to keep it fairly focused–with a few extraneous bits here and there–proving what can happen when you write a tightly plotted story that focuses on interpersonal relationships rather than broader cultural or social plots (which tend to not make that much sense, anyway).  It looks like we are going to return next week to Dracula’s quest to be able to walk in the sun which, while still a little out there, nevertheless has some interesting potential.  Hopefully, it will hit the same balance of visceral shock–who can ever forget Dracula’s hallucination that he slices Jonathan’s throat during a dance at the engagement party–and powerful and evocative emotion that we saw this week.  If so, we might just get lucky and have a few more episodes than the ten we are guaranteed.

 

Review: “Dracula”–“From Darkness to Light”

NBC’s horror/drama/science fiction series certainly has a lot of balls in the air after this most recent episode.  Dracula is attempting to find a way to walk in the sunlight with the aid of Van Helsing, Mina and Jonathan are continuing with their wedding plans while Lucy is filled with regret, Lady Jayne finds herself becoming more and more infatuated with the exceedingly dangerous Dracula, and Renfield is captured by the duplicitous Lord Thomas Davenport.

The Good

There was a lot to like about this episode, starting with the obvious chemistry between the leads.  Meyers and De Gouw in particular shine as the two lovers separated by death who have somehow managed to find one another again in Victorian London.  The real sparks, however, are between Meyers and Smurfit (who portrays Lady Jayne).  The two practically light up the screen whenever they appear together, and this adds some much-needed electricity to their scenes together.  Indeed, their twisted and convoluted relationship is one of the aspects of the series that works really well, due in large part to the portrayal of their characters.

The true highlight of the series so far, however, is Renfield (Nonson Anozie), who continues to serve as his master’s conscience and voice of reason.  Whereas Dracula has a great deal of political vision and great ambitions, he sometimes fails to see the important things that Renfield can.  This makes his capture by Lord Davenport (undertaken outside the auspices of the Order) something of a blow for Dracula, and it might even lead to his undoing.

The Bad

Although there is a lot to praise in this series—the luscious set designs, the solid performances by most of the cast—it is still plagued by some of the problems that arose at the outset.  While its ability to bring together several different genres is what sets it apart, it also serve as one of its greatest weaknesses.  However, this may be just a matter of execution rather than of the inadvisability of genre mixing.  In one episode we saw not only the introduction and quick death of a new character, but we also saw Dracula’s continuing attempts to create a new source of energy and to be able to walk in the sun, the efforts of the Order to eradicate the vampire threat, the ongoing preparations for Jonathan’s and Mina’s wedding, and the Order’s machinations to control the oil fields currently under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.  Any two or three of these would provide enough material for almost an entire season’s worth of good writing.  As it is, the show tries to keep too many balls in the air at one time, and as a result most of the storylines suffer.  For example, we hardly saw anything of Van Helsing this episode, and the angst Lucy feels at Mina’s impending nuptials feels rather trite and tacked on.

It seems to me that Dracula suffers from a similar syndrome to that which afflicts other high-concept series like Once Upon a Time.  Faced with the reality of network programming (in which a series has to prove its value over the course of a season in order to be considered for renewal), Dracula quite simply tries to take on too much at one time, and as a result it doesn’t really do any of them all that well.  Of all of it, Dracula’s attempt to find an alternate source of energy that would undermine the Order’s control of oil tends to fall flat.  The mention of it in this episode was no more convincing than it was in the first.  Let’s hope that they find a way to make this particular thread more compelling.

The Ugly

Despite the fact that this series has some splendid production values (especially for a network series), there were a few moments in tonight’s episode that were visually unappealing.  In particular, the scene in which Dracula takes Lady Jayne to what appears to be a mud wrestling match between two scantily clad women—followed by a steamy sex scene—was both visually and ideologically repulsive.  One might expect something of this sort from HBO (who probably could have pulled it off with a lot more style), but coming from NBC it all seemed rather pointless and not at all entertaining.

All in all, “From Darkness to Light” set up some interesting premises that will hopefully be followed through before the series reaches its conclusion (its current ratings strongly suggest that it will not be renewed).  It looks as though next week, with a captured Renfield being tortured, might be one of the most interesting yet.

Grade:  B

Review of “Dracula”: “The Blood is the Life”

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.

Grade:  A