REVIEW: How NBC’s Dracula Lost Its Mojo & How It Can Get It Back
Dracula – Why Reality Bites but It’s Not Always Bad
Vampires have always been a deeply fascinating concept. For thousands of years, the idea of them – ageless, sleepless and deadly – has existed in cultures across the globe, so it’s no surprise that even today we continue to be utterly captivated by their legend and mysticism. But it wasn’t perhaps until more recent history – when we imbued their legend with another characteristic: that of unfading, flawless beauty – that we made that mental shift from being intrigued by the formerly morbid, bloodthirsty horror of them, to being completely mesmerized by their new-found perfection.
And nowhere has this fixation manifested itself more clearly than in our obsession with telling (and finding ways to re-tell) the godfather of vampire legends: Dracula.
In a weird way, it doesn’t feel out of place to compare people having their favourite Dracula to people having their favourite Doctor: it’s the same sort of principle in that everybody kind of has a loyalty to the one they know best. For some it will be Frank Langella’s offering, or Christopher Lee’s, or (for those dedicated and delightfully quirky few amongst us) Leslie Nielsen’s wonderful turn as Transylvania’s most famous son. As for this reviewer? She knew she was sunk as soon as the magnificence that is Gary Oldman pulled on these most famous of fangs. It’s an illustrious list of names to join, to be sure.
With that in mind, it was with great excitement when I found out last year that Jonathan Rhys Meyers would be adding himself to that list, as the titular character in NBC’s new Dracula series. Usually I like to find out who is writing, producing and directing series like this, in the sense that as a fan of the original legend I want to know who is going to be responsible for doing it justice. In this case however, I didn’t do any of that, purely on the back of the fact that I am such a fan of Meyers as an actor. After all: four seasons of The Tudors proved without question that he was more than capable of breathing new, fierce and believable life into a centuries old legend; his Henry Tudor was magnificent, burning unrepentantly through your screen and into your mind with the kind of portrayal that’s hard to tear your eyes away from, even when he is portraying a bloodthirsty and brutally self-indulgent tyrant.
And yet, here I am: finding myself sadly feeling a little cold. But I’ve never been one to just abandon a show I like, the second I get bored. So I did here what I always do: I watched and re-watched it all, trying to work out where it’s gone wrong to date. And finally, I think I’ve figured it out.
Because you see, it all boils down to one, core thing in the end for me, and funnily enough it’s the exact same thing that hooked me on the show in the first place.
“[It] aimed to be a heady, sensual assault of love and legend, upon the viewers from the absolute outset, in a way that would make it addictive, quickly.”
NBC’s Dracula has aimed to be a heady, sensual assault of love and legend, upon the viewers from the absolute outset, in a way that would make it addictive, quickly. That motivation was inherently obvious from the first frame that aired on our screens. From Lady Jayne’s oxygen-is-for-wimps bodices; to Mina’s warm, glowing aura of kindness and purity; to that first moment we first meet Dracula’s contemporary alter ego Alexander Grayson, when he sits suddenly up out of that steaming bath: everything about Dracula’s debut indicated that NBC aimed to make a show where every episode would feel less like a piece of television and more like an emotional hit of sexy indulgence. And so it did. For a while.
That was until, they let the show become so hedonistic in its visual appeal that it – along with the heart of its story – got lost in its own hedonism. Which, subsequently, turned it from a sexy indulgence into an example of pure creative self-indulgence, in the minute space of seven episodes. A particularly dangerous thing to do when you’re only giving yourself ten episodes a season to work with.
I want this show to succeed very much, which is why I think honest feedback is so important. So, the bad news first: what is Dracula getting wrong?
The show seems to have lost its way because it has relied far too much, too often, on sex and blood thirsty self-satisfaction to make either of those things really meaningful anymore in the context of the plot.
When things as powerful as sex and death stop being meaningful in the context of a story, an audience will never fail to get bored, feel like they are seeing the same thing every week in one form or another, and subsequently, feel a bit cheated; indeed, when this happens, you’ll find viewers disappear faster from your weekly numbers than a cheap date from an expensive restaurant when it’s time to pay the bill.
For example, if you have been watching the show, you’ll know that what they’re trying to do is build towards Mina realising…well, maybe not exactly who Alexander really is, but in the very least that she and Alexander have an undeniable, love-affair-of-the-ages chemistry, and that they belong together far more than she and Harker do. And as an audience, you long for those stolen moments where their deeply felt attraction and chemistry rise to the surface and begin to bubble. Fiercely.
In Dracula’s current case? Well. While on one hand he is aching brutally for his one true love, he’s having a ridiculous amount of sexy time with a woman that for all intents and purposes ultimately means nothing to him. And the situation you’re left with? Viewers everywhere looking at Alexander in all his shirtless glory – again – and tossing their snacks at the screen in annoyance while yelling ‘I KNOW he’s hot! Now quit with the gratuitous skin shots and get to the damn POINT!’
By giving them too much, too often, you end up with an audience that has nothing to look forward to. Nothing to beg for. Nothing to hold out for. Simple as that. And seriously: have people in television forgotten the power of making an audience wait for something they want? Have they forgotten the way a fan base is willing to hang on for ages – if given just enough poignant morsels to keep them wanting more – to the hope that this relationship will happen, or that character will get their just desserts?
At the moment, the audience lacks reasons to really care about the characters across the board, which means if anything is done to hurt those characters – or give them happiness – it won’t matter as much as it should.
Why is Lady Jayne in the Order? Does she have some horrible family tragedy that drove her to hate vampires and therefore want to
be the best in the world at killing them? Or does she just like getting blood spattered and using sharp cutlery in combat situations? Are we going to get any reason ever to maybe change our minds about her? Any reason to be sympathetic? And what about Lucy? She has been tragic character this entire series to date; what about giving her something that empowers her? Could she discover Alexander’s secret by accident? Discover that he is in fact in love with Mina? Would it drive her to want to protect the woman she loves or to learn all that she could in order to take action out of jealousy and heartbreak? Could she be the foe that Alexander could never have seen coming? There are so many intriguing questions being left not only unanswered, but entirely unaddressed.
This simply will not do. Not when such excellent potential is there. As a viewer, I want you to make me so absorbed in the emotion and drama of what I see now with these characters, that I won’t even see you coming with the plot bomb you’re planning to drop on all our unsuspecting heads, later. I want you to give me as much relevant knowledge as you can, but never waste the opportunity to suddenly remind me that I don’t know everything. I want to sit up and gasp at my TV screen in blind disbelief at the gutsy switcheroo that’s just been pulled on me: one that’s founded not in what I as a fan want as much as it is in what the show in itself, needs. Because that is TV with integrity.
So where does that leave all of us? Well, in all honesty, it’s left us in a bit of disappointment and left Dracula with its head on the network chopping block. Not a place that either of us want to be.
BUT – despite all this – I do believe in this show and in its creators’ ability to turn it round and into a second season, because there really are so many wonderful ingredients here for a great, engaging show.
With that in mind, here are a few things worth them having a think about as they move forward:
Don’t be afraid to leave your audience begging for even a morsel of intense but honest passion. The sparser they are, the more maddeningly wonderful they are to savor.
That scene in the most recent episode, where a blood starved Alexander is dancing with Mina in the hallway, was excellent. The hold he had over his thirst was so bare, so tenuous and so tested as her pulsing vein lay cruelly close to him; and yet, just she was his purest form of temptation, she was also his strongest anchor to the humanity he is so desperately clinging to. He hung on to his hold over his dark nature, and she held on to him. It made for a beautiful and very telling moment in the context of both characters.
Their exquisite dance, also, only an episode earlier when Harker offers Alexander Mina’s hand for the first turn about the floor at Harker and Mina’s engagement party, was thoroughly engrossing. The unspoken chemistry and history between them made for scintillating, utterly magnetic viewing. They were just dancing, and yet you literally could not tear your eyes away, even though in a weird way you felt like you should because the scene between Alexander and Mina was so emotionally intimate. These scenes told me more of what mattered, just in themselves, than previous whole complete episodes had done in their entirety.
And it is precisely these moments that mean more than a thousand bodice ripping scenes ever will to a dedicated audience. They are the moments that a dedicated audience will wait for and hang on to for ages, until, finally, you let the characters give in to their true feelings. Good writing means patience: patience in giving your characters only ever what they need in order to thrive, grow and evolve. Over indulged characters are far harder to relate to in the end, because even if the rest of the story is wildy fictional and supernatural, there has to be an element of real life to it. And people who always get what they want are not “real life”. In short, give us people that – despite their otherworldliness – we can still relate to in some way, even if that way isn’t always a good one.
Your supporting characters have stories that matter, too. Give us the chance to get to know them more and use the feelings you create in your audience to your advantage.
Renfield is my favourite character in this category. His casting (the character is played by the fabulous Nonso Anozie) and back story are fantastic. I loved getting to know more about his relationship with Alexander and how they first came to meet, in the episode where he is abducted by the order and tortured for information. I loved the understanding that gave me about both Renfield and Alexander as characters; about how far they were both willing to go to protect each other’s interests. Now, granted, Renfield might double-cross him brutally out of nowhere at some point, but in the very least the comfort zone I will have been lulled into is superb.
Jonathan, is likewise, a good character that has the potential to be much better utilised than he is. Oliver Jackson-Cohen is a very able actor and to date has played one of my more favoured versions of Harker. He’s given him a bit more depth rather than simply giving him his usual treatment and playing him yet again as a pure hearted but hapless, inconsequential beau that pales in comparison to Dracula. Jackson-Cohen’s Harker is good but also flawed, a little selfish, and – whilst still well intentioned for the most part – ambitious. He’s given Jonathan a bit of chutzpah, which means that despite him being human and Alexander being a supernatural, ancient creature of immense power, we can still be made to feel that when it comes to Mina, they are both just men that are equal to each other in the race to win her heart.
Don’t be afraid to pull the rug out from under us.
Finding out that a character you believed in all along is the mole. Seeing a beloved character get brutally killed off by someone they trusted, without warning. Watching a character finally unveil who they are but not getting the reaction they anticipated. There can be any number of things you do to tip an audiences expectations on its head, but one things for sure: there’s nothing quite so powerful as a well-thought-out, sudden change up in a show’s plot. Does it have to be meaningful? Of course, because you’ve just spent a season making these characters mean something to us. Does it have to make an audience happy? Well you don’t want to completely piss them off with a stupid turn of events, of course, but you certainly shouldn’t pander to their expectations just so they walk away feeling satisfied all the time, like they’ve just eaten some giant, delicious Christmas dinner and are so stuck in their stupor that they can’t actually remember what they liked about it all.
No. You want to be those writers that have your story still playing out in someone’s head a week, a month, after that last credit has rolled. Because great television – like all great writing and acting – stays with you and for the right reasons, long after you’ve stopped watching. Be brave and be bold, because you have the capacity to do something amazing with this story.
So. After all that, is this show still worth…well…sinking my teeth into?
My answer to this question – despite all the show’s flaws to date – would still have to be yes. And an absolute yes, at that. Not out of a blind loyalty to an actor whose career I have followed for many years, and not because I’m a fan of the legend and will take whatever form of its retelling I can get, either. Let me be very clear in saying that. Rather, I say yes because there are three episodes of Dracula to go this season, and I think everybody involved with this show knows that those episodes are going to have to pack a huge punch if it’s going to be renewed. Hence my belief that these remaining episodes may be – or at least I very much hope they will be – the best so far.
Because after all, there is a lot to be said for coming into a show not at the start, but rather, at its best. Why? Because knowing the excellence that is to come is more likely to send you back to the start with a willingness to keep watching even through the bad episodes. You know what’s coming and you know it’s worth hanging around for.
With that in mind, here’s hoping that for Dracula, the best is still very much to come.