Concocting some playful twists on the well-worn Dracula mythology, NBC’s international version of Bram Stoker’s bloodsucker transforms him into a revenge-seeking schemer — someone with a “Death Wish” in more ways than one, waging war against a shadowy group of One-Percenters known as the Order of the Dragon. It’s a reasonably clever conceit in terms of exploiting the character’s name while erecting the scaffolding to support serialized intrigue. And if the inordinately crimson-drenched doings threaten to become strained over a long haul, in the short term, anyway, “Dracula” is pretty tasty. Besides, nothing in TV lives forever, right?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers is an apt choice for the title role, since this Count doesn’t stray far from the thesp’s portrayal of Henry VIII in “The Tudors” — inasmuch as both are aristocratic fellows with larger-than-life, unquenchable appetites.
Set in the late 19th century, the handsome premiere opens with a slain Dracula being revived from the dead (don’t get too attached to one of the guys who helps dig him up), and promptly heading to London. There, he poses as a wealthy American industrialist named Alexander Grayson (no relation, presumably, to the latter-day barons on ABC’s “Revenge”), adopting a stiff accent as part of the charade, and proceeding to rub sometimes-pointed elbows with the moneyed Victorian elite.
As for other familiar names from the “Dracula” mythology, Grayson is interviewed by an ambitious young reporter named Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), whose fiancee, Mina (Jessica De Gouw), is a dead ringer for Dracula’s murdered beloved, whom the Order took from him centuries earlier. Showing prescience for a journalist of his time, Harker is quickly entranced by the lure of big money, drawing him, and thus Mina, into the mogul’s orbit.
In addition, the cast of characters includes Renfield (Nonso Anozie), Grayson’s able right-hand man; and Professor Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann, an excellent choice), though neither in quite the guise those well versed in the tale have come to expect.
Overseen by Daniel Knauf (“Carnivale”), created by Cole Haddon and counting “Downton Abbey’s” Gareth Neame among its exec producers, “Dracula” clearly benefits from its international auspices, with a brooding Gothic look and ornate period trappings. Despite its leading man’s fearsome powers, the producers have also established the Order — an ancient cabal built on an “empire of lies,” we’re told — as a formidable adversary, one acquainted with vampires and methods designed to neutralize them.
Like “Hannibal” (another NBC drama built around an antihero with a peculiar diet), this series pushes boundaries in terms of gore, torture and sex, flourishes that feel both organic and perhaps a bit less jarring given the fantastic setting and situations.
Scheduled on Friday nights after NBC’s unexpectedly durable “Grimm,” the stakes for “Dracula” aren’t quite as high as they might be in a midweek timeslot. That said, should the series exhibit signs of life, it’s not farfetched to think the network’s schedulers might give it a try somewhere else where they could use a Nielsen transfusion.
Given the eye-popping ratings for “The Walking Dead,” every network has to be looking at the supernatural with more welcoming eyes right now. By that measure, NBC might have dug up “Dracula” just in time — before the old-monster graveyard is filled with shovel-wielding network executives.