Cole Hadden’s new take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula makes its intention to rewrite the familiar legend known early on. Awakened from what would have been eternal slumber by two explorers, one of whom butchers the other like a sacrificial pig, Dracula (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) travels to Victorian London under the guise of Alexander Grayson, a Southern American industrialist with a dream of realizing Nikola Tesla’s theories of telegeodynamics. Though it’s hardly a new image (The Prestige made it outright haunting), the best sequence in the entirety of the first few episodes involves Grayson reenacting Tesla’s wireless light bulb experiment for a gathering of bluebloods in his mansion, while the workers manning the experiment’s subterranean component under the mansion are injured or die from a short-out.
By aligning Dracula with Tesla, a neglected genius whose ambitious notions were dismissed in favor of Thomas Edison’s more popular and profitable ideas, writer-producer Hadden, alongside the show’s various co-writers and directors, promises an alternate, more daring vision of Stoker’s classic. The idea of a popularized visage overshadowing a darker, more insidious being echoes throughout the series, including the seemingly honorable and hospitable captains of English industry who are at immediate odds with Dracula. They are, in fact, all members of a malevolent, power-hungry criminal society known as the Order of the Dragon, bent on greed, world domination, and so on. In contrast, Hadden sets up Dracula as a kind of nobleman, despite the fact that he murders some half-dozen people, for sustenance or revenge, within the first two episodes.
Indeed, the series hardly takes stock of Dracula’s monstrous acts, whereas the members of the Order of the Dragon are depicted as very simply evil. There’s a noticeably earnest effort to depict Dracula as politically correct and thoroughly “new.” At one point, he voices his support for a closeted homosexual’s lifestyle during a trip to an underground drag show, and simultaneously sees the situation as an opportunity for blackmail. It’s a haltingly false sequence made to set up more plot rather than explore the atmosphere, era, or characters in the scene. And the longer you watch the series, the more it becomes clear that Dracula isn’t as interested in revitalizing the legend as it is in inoculating it.
Dracula is all story (and backstory) without a tremor of distinct personality coming through any member of its menagerie of wealthy industrialists, ambitious bluestockings, and monsters, human or otherwise. The sobersided tint of the show’s dimly lit aesthetic is in total sync with the lurching archness of its ludicrous plot, the density of which might be more impressive if it didn’t also invite a corrosive humorlessness. Renfield (Nonso Alonzie) is scrubbed of any sense of madness or inner conflict, seen more like the Watson to Dracula’s Holmes. Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann), for his part, is the royal bloodsucker’s collaborator, working diligently on some SPF one million sunscreen for his buddy. And dear Jonathan Harkin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is presented as no more than a doe-eyed, passive-aggressive misogynist, leading Mina (Jessica De Gouw), his would-be fiancé, to draw closer to the eponymous not-so-antihero.
In essence, Hadden’s Dracula is an attempt to turn the greatest of all vampires into Bruce Wayne, and the Christopher Nolan influence is fully apparent in the show’s dull grimness. Underneath the shallow brooding, everything feels like build-up to a massive climactic event, every maneuver directed, written, and acted as if it were yet another crucial move toward some terribly violent, bad end. The tactic is meant to drum up suspense, which it doesn’t do particularly well, and the series loses any sense of humanity, shirking the very pulse of life the titular vampire hungers for.