Sunday, December 1, 2013

TV Review: Dracula (Season 1 Episodes 1-5)

I'm a graduate of the Whedon School of television. I've watched all of his shows, most of which while they were on the air, and have been a fanatic of his for a very long time. I like to think that this means I know good long-form storytelling when I see it, but I think it mostly means I've gotten used to "good" or "enjoyable" shows getting cancelled before they've had a chance to really find their audience. But when Dracula on NBC gets cancelled, as I'm almost certain it will be, that's going to be fairly tough pill to swallow.

It's not that Dracula is as good as Firefly or anything, it really isn't even in the same league, but it's surprisingly entertaining and enjoyable and delivers a lot of good things to look for in a series. And for it to be on NBC makes it even more surprising, but that fact also seems to spell its doom. Add to that its Friday night time slot (also known as the kiss of death), and its falling ratings and it seems like the show is doomed. Which is too bad because for the first time in a number of years NBC finds itself poised to deliver some real quality programming if they'd only sit back and allow the story to take hold and find its audience. Granted the show hasn't been cancelled yet, and after giving Hannibal a second season, some of the signs seem to point towards NBC finally learning it's important to be patient in the current TV market, but I won't rest easy until the show is officially picked up for a second season and we see what it and Hannibal are capable of doing with a little word of mouth press and some time under their belts.

There are two facts potentially coloring my view of Dracula: 1) I had very low expectations going in. And those expectations were only barely surpassed by what was ultimately a weak Pilot. 2) I binge watched episodes 2-5 in one morning. So it's possible that the show is only as good as I think it is when its being consumed all at once, but in the day of the DVR and Netflix and such, I don't think that this is a bad thing.

But enough about the fact that I think the show is good, here's why I think it's good (spoilers to follow):

1) Character, character, character!
I can't stress enough how important clearly defined characters with clearly defined goals and motivations are to just about every story. Dracula seems to understand who its characters are and what drives them to do the things they do. Everything from Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann) helping Dracula (with no pleasure from the action for either of them), to the complications in Mina (Jessica De Gouw) and Harker's (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) relationship make perfect sense. The show has yet to make a character decision that doesn't feel understandable and organic, and the few main characters we don't know as well yet (Lady Jayne Wetherby comes to mind) we know well enough to understand the decisions being made in the moment and I have faith that they'll get origin type episodes like Renfield got most recently.

2) The story is simple and interesting.
Dracula (the constantly sexy Jonathan Rhys Meyers but I mean really really sexy) is resurrected by Van Helsing so the two of them can embark on a quest for revenge against the shadowy cabal that ruined both of their lives. Everything Dracula does from taking on the persona of an American entrepreneur (bad accent and all) to getting involved in a Victorian race for renewable energy is dedicated to eliminating his enemies. Along the way he meets Mina Murray who happens to be the spitting image of his murdered wife and romantic wackiness ensues. The story is never convoluted or difficult to follow, but the focus on intrigue and the traffic of information leaves the series with the ability not to rely too highly on big action set pieces to keep your interest. This lack of reliance on pulse-pounding action was one of the first things I noticed when watching Game of Thrones, actually, and the same sensibility is found here.

3) A dedication to diversity.
This might not be a big deal to some people, but I think the way that this genre show is showing a dedication to presenting a story with queer characters and characters of color when it really doesn't have to is brilliant. The story is set in Victorian London, so it could easily get away with the idea that blacks and gays just weren't all that prolific. Instead they've made it a point to introduce important queer characters (yes plural!) and people of color into their early episodes. Compare that to another genre show, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and you've got a study in opposites. And worse, AOS has no excuses since it takes place in a contemporary world. But I digress, the point is that I don't doubt that each viewer will be able to see his/herself in this show by the time the first season is over, and the stories they're telling about race relations, gender equality, and queer visibility in their world are fun, interesting, and entertaining.

In the end, we're simply left with a good and enjoyable show. Now if only I could do something to ensure NBC would be smart for once and let it take its time to find an audience.

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