Dracula: The Blood is the Life

“Tonight, it is my sublime pleasure to demonstrate a way out, out of the darkness.”

I signed up to review the pilots of Reign and Dracula for one very simple reason: I like reviewing bad shows. It’s fun. You complain, you nitpick, and no one takes issue with it because everyone knows it wasn’t very good. Unfortunately for me, Reign turned out to be watchable (if only in a guilty pleasure sense) and Dracula...well, it was not a total disaster.

Obviously, it has issues, but I’m not sure anyone was expecting much. The biggest downside of the show to me was that it was mind-crushingly derivative. There was very little, if anything, original about this show. Obviously it’s based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula and its movie adaptations, but it’s more than that. A lot of the aesthetics seem to have been borrowed from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes series. The fight scene between Dracula and Kruger on the roof was an extremely obvious takeaway. Dracula also appropriated the movies’ slightly steampunk flavor. Just enough of it to keep you interested, not enough to alienate anyone. Although, I’m having a thought: can we still call it steampunk when the technology is based on magnets instead of steam? Or should we change it to magnetpunk? Various bits throughout reminded me of other things as well. There was the Raiders of the Lost Ark opening, The Count of Monte Cristo ballroom scene, the generic teen drama on the CW sleepover scene, I could go on. But instead, let’s just jump to another problem: too much too soon.

It’s a common issue with pilots. It’s actually easier to think of an overstuffed pilot episode than one that was balanced and well paced. Introducing everything in just an hour is a tall order even when you’re not dealing with a show as complicated as this one. Even so, the writers should have spread all this out over the first two or even three episodes and given their characters a chance to settle into their roles. As it was, the pilot was unfocused. I feel like the writers wrote out a bunch of plot points they’re planning on pursuing over the series run (however long or short that will be) and were determined to at least mention all of them once.

And we’re onto our third and final major problem which is less of a problem and more of a worry of mine: is the show too ambitious? I just feel like there’s too much going on and too many explorable possibilities for the show to settle down into a watchable pace. With the Order of the Dragon, Professor Van Helsing, Dracula’s origin, vampire mythology, Dracula’s relationship with Mina and/or previous incarnation of Mina, Mina’s career as a surgeon, Mina and Harker’s relationship, social commentary on the rich (particularly those who own oil companies), engagement with real world history (Edison and Darwin are mentioned and Jack the Ripper is explained), and meta commentary on Dracula canon, I worry that it’s just too much.

I’ve never read Dracula. I’ve never seen a movie with Dracula in it. All of my knowledge of the famous vampire comes second (or third or fourth) hand. Still, I thought I knew enough from “Buffy vs. Dracula” and that black and white episode of Supernatural. Apparently not. My “research” (by definition, the word ‘research’ must be in quotes if it involves Wikipedia) produced some interesting insights into the show I would have otherwise missed. For instance, Renfield (in this version, Dracula’s servant/butler/valet person) is canonically a mental asylum inmate who eats bugs. Mina is not an aspiring surgeon, but a school teacher in the book. Yes, it’s pushing the historical accuracy envelope a bit, but not as much as you might think. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to have her name entered on the General Medical Council’s medical register in 1859, almost forty years before the show is set.

Bottom line: give it a try if you want to; don’t let others talk you out of it. But it’s not amazing, so keep your expectations low.

Bits and Pieces:

I wonder if JRM and Natalie Dormer (Elementary) practiced their American accents together on the set of The Tudors. Both are just bad enough to be distracting.

JRM is not one of the greatest actors of our day, but Dracula is comfortably in his wheelhouse. Now, about that wig...

Speaking of costuming, Lady Jayne’s ensembles were positively cartoonish.

I actually really liked the explanation of Jack the Ripper as a cover-up of vampiric activity. It shows that they’re not taking themselves too seriously.

The cover for the murder that took place in this episode was “killed by a dog.” In Dracula, Dracula could take the shape of a dog, which I did not know until this afternoon. I thought vampires were supposed to turn into bats?

The Order of the Dragon was a real-life chivalric order whose members included Vlad the Impaler, thought to be the historical inspiration behind Dracula. Dracula is a member of the Order in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola version).

Dracula no longer sounds like a word to me.


Harker (about Dracula): “Visionary. Delusional. Egomaniac.”

Dracula / Alexander Grayson: “Your invitation did request my ‘discreet company.’”
Lady Jayne: “Yes it did, though I was concerned, as an American, that you might not understand the meaning of the word ‘discreet.’”
Dracula: “I had to look it up.”


ChrisB said...

You are much nicer about this show than I. I thought it was positively dreadful!

Your comment about "research" made me laugh out loud. What would we lowly reviewers do without Wikipedia???

TheShadowKnows said...

"I’ve never read Dracula. I’ve never seen a movie with Dracula in it. All of my knowledge of the famous vampire comes second (or third or fourth) hand. Still, I thought I knew enough from 'Buffy vs. Dracula' and that black and white episode of Supernatural. Apparently not."

I honestly can't tell if you're serious here or if this is deadpan humor. If you really haven't read Dracula, or seen Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee in the role, then by all means do so.

eternaleve said...

'Obviously it’s based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula and its movie adaptations'

This show is not based on Dracula. It's based on a synopsis of the plot scribbled on a cocktail napkin and dumped in a bin. Dracula is one of my all-time favourite books, and this show was one of the most painful experiences of my life.

NBC wants to make a sexy vampire show, like all the cool networks are doing, and cobbled together a show made of the various elements of them; cool secret orders, blonde women fighting vampires, young folks being sexy, and having a literary basis. They seemed to forget that animating dead tropes doesn't work out well. It's a real shame, because a honest and scary adaptation of Dracula would be amazing.

migmit said...

> For instance, Renfield... is canonically a mental asylum inmate who eats bugs.

You should know that: in "Buffy vs. Dracula" Xander, being mentally controlled by Dracula, was eating bugs.

I won't advise reading Bram Stoker's book; I did, and it's pretty bad. I'm more used to stories where "creepy" is NOT the only character trait of the villain.

Josie Kafka said...

On the contrary, I would advise you to read the book as soon as possible, Sunbunny!

It's wacky and over the top--pure delight. It has a great secondary theme about modernity and industrialization that's quite interestingly done.

I've read it a few times and have been thinking of doing it again soon.

sunbunny said...

migmit - I NEVER got that part of Buffy vs. Dracula. It always confused the crap out of me. Yesterday while "researching," I had this big OH! moment and I felt so stupid (not a new feeling for me). :)

Josie - It's definitely on my list now, but we seem to be kindred spirits: it's not the plot that interests me but some of the themes. Plus, there's an American character and I've recently become really interested in British and Irish depictions of America and Americans in that era.

Josie Kafka said...

Sunbunny, you're in for a treat with the American character!

Just please promise me to read the book before watching the movie version with Keanu Reeves.

Morgan India said...

I thought it would never happen, but JRM has lost some of his sex appeal for me. Maybe it's the eyebrows. Maybe it's the slicked back hair and the atrocious American accent.

I know that Katie McGrath is a natural blonde, but it just looks strange on her after years of Merlin.

Anonymous said...

I kinda thought JRM would have to do the obligatory vaguely Romanian accent a la Gary Oldman..this was so much worse..And oh dear what a mess this show is..I think it's so awful it's almost fun. Oh well..Seconding the read Dracula thing. It's a classic, and a fun one at that. Don't bother with his other books..I tried "Jewel of the seven stars" and it just wasn't worth it. Mummies or not.

Anonymous said...

Oh and there's a bonkers version of Stoker's "Lair of the white worm" directed by Ken Russell..Stars future doctor Who Peter Capaldi who gets to wear a kilt and fight giant worms..
And there's a bewildered Hugh Grant doing his posh thing. Very timely for Halloween too.

Anonymous said...

I love all things "Dracula" but ...
this was just painful to watch

I think JRM is the worst possible cast for the part and blond Morgana is unsettling...

I crossed this show off my list immediately


Stijn Van Tongerloo said...

Hello guys,

My opinion of the show is more nuanced. I thought I’d offer a voice of dissent, to balance pluses and minuses.
If I take the highest quality standards (worthy of shows like Breaking Bad, Sherlock ect.) I’d rate the Dracula pilot episode low on the scale. But I don’t think it’s necessary to use such high standards – I search for the shows’ own merits.
This said, however, I agree that the show *must* work on some points to turn it into a truly fascinating watch.
Note : I’m taking episode 1 and 2 together, painting my picture.

The bad
- Several characters are not fleshed out (yet), which causes some dull interaction. Examples : Jonathan Harker (a hollow character), Lady Jany (a stereotype), Mina (no clear personality).
- Though I like camp, some elements seem totally out of place. The show aims for a gothic, Victorian atmosphere. A Lady Jane practicing material arts and Matrix-like swords fights on the roof doesn’t do it for me.

The good
- I find the storyline, integrating elements from Bram Stoker’s original story (plus Coppola’s interpretation) and “magnetpunk” (nice term), refreshing and potentially very interesting.
- I think the performance of our lead actor is ok. In episode 2 the Dracula character is starting to show some nuances in character (deciding not to use hypnotism to draw Mina). The character is juggling two personas, the innovative industrialist and the vampire, which I find intriguing. I think the writers could do interesting things with this, if they have enough imagination.
- There’s two male tandems that I really like : Dracula-Renfield and Van Helsing-Dracula. I find myself looking forward to scenes with these characters – there’s real chemistry here.

Personally, I see promise in this series if the writers have enough imagination to expand on the elements that work and tone down on the elements that don’t.

Voice of dissent out :)

AndyDecker said...

Read the novel. It is a great book. And it is quite understandable why it was never filmed properly. It is quite revealing abiut the victorian mindset.

Coppola's Dracula is a very frustrating movie for me. I adored the production. So many great scenes.

But I hate the cheesy and idiotic reincarnation nonsense. Hate it with a passion. Aside from being stolen from the movie The Mummy - the original - it does a 180 for the character Dracula and turns him into something which he is not. It is painful and idiotic.

So of course they had to use it for this tv production. What a waste. When I read about it and JRM I was intrigued. When I got to the part about the lost love crap I thought forget it.

Seems I was right :-)

Heather1 said...

Well... I'm certainly in the minority. I like it. I've only just started watching it online and am on the 3rd episode. I like that they have added another layer with the Order of the Dragon... Dracula becomes an anti-hero. I like his relationship with Van Helsing... I think the American accent is just fine. I just don't like the Mina storyline. I feel it gets in the way.. and is really not necessary. They could have had Dracula hiring Harker as his emissary in society, without Mina