It's hard not to see NBC's newest dramatic offering, Dracula, as a very belated attempt to cash in on the once-dominant worldwide vampire frenzy, which has since given way to zombies and witches. Dracula's lateness means that the show's creative minds will have to work hard to differentiate it from the HBO hit True Blood, the CW's The Vampire Diaries, and the blockbuster Twilight series. Even outside of the most visible recent entries in the genre, we've been oversaturated: Tim Burton's Dark Shadows, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and new installments in the vampires vs. werewolves series Underworld have all rolled out in just the last three years.
That's a lot of sharp fangs and dripping blood in a relatively small window of time. So why would NBC bring back Dracula now, just as other networks' vampires are retreating back into their coffins? Well, the first offering of the new, 10-episode series Dracula offers a clue and a pleasant surprise: There might actually still be new stories left to tell about the count. It's too early to say if this will translate into a season's worth of thrills, but the choice to abandon the vampires-hiding-in-modern-day trope is a wise one — and a sign that there might be room for a little new blood in the genre after all.
When we meet Dracula, the year is 1881 and our protagonist appears as a shriveled corpse, rotting in an underground tomb until two men rappel down to unearth him. Fresh blood hits his withered lips and he instantly comes to life, shedding the layers of death to reappear as a handsome, young lothario (Jonathon Rhys-Meyer). Five years later, he's holding court as an imposter, playing an American entrepreneur named Alexander Greyson who has invited the toast of London society to his imposing mansion to woo them with a grand ball and display of his own wireless power technology.
As he tells a group of businessmen, he intends to buy out several of their patents to further establish himself in the city. While impressed with his ability to power freestanding light bulbs without wires, they're none too happy to meet the Yankee interloper. One businessman swears that Greyson is a fraud who will never do business in London. Unfortunately for him, he's just crossed Dracula — and will soon find himself at the receiving end of a pair of fangs.
But blood isn't the only thing on Dracula's mind. He spots the gorgeous brunette Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw) as she dances with her boyfriend, journalist Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), at his ball. There's a clear connection between Dracula/Greyson and Murray the moment their eyes lock — but it's unclear why, even by the episode's end. Even her bubbly best friend notices their kinetic bond, jokingly teasing her about it later that night. Dracula asks his assistant to find out everything about Mina and her boyfriend, eventually deciding to invite the young journalist to interview him the next day in order to learn more.
Unfortunately, that's where the story sags. It's difficult for any show to take off into the stratosphere on first viewing, thanks in no small part to the enormous amount of expository information that must be conveyed in a relatively small window of time. Backstories, justifications, and hints about the future all need to be neatly laid out while moving the action forward — and the result is often a hodge-podge of compelling moments nestled between long chunks of laborious plot. That's surely the case with Dracula, but the choice to make the show a bodice ripper helps the info dump go down a little smoother. Sumptuous fabrics and the click of heels on cobblestone streets always lend an air of texture, and the eerie floating of flowing dresses and crisp top hats through the foggy streets of London is a welcome respite from the angsty modernity of Twilight and the hyper-sexualized camp of True Blood.
As it turns out, Dracula has returned to exact vengeance on a secret society known as the Order of the Dragon. They have worked in the shadows for centuries, and burned Dracula's wife at the stake right before his eyes. It's not clear how Dracula's business scheming will help him take down his foes — but in a conversation with Professor Van Helsing, we learn that the two worked together to bring him back from near-oblivion and create a backstory of lies. This is a surprisingly sympathetic version of Dracula; his vengeance is flamed by the desperate anger he feels for having lost his wife, a newly invented plot point that paints him in a totally different light than Bram Stoker's one-note monster. Unfortunately, the effect is slightly diminished by Rhys-Meyer's rounded American accent, which sounds less like a refined businessman in disguise and more like a bad Christian Slater impression.
The other thing that distinguishes Dracula from its film and TV rivals is the relative dearth of flesh. Modern retellings have overtly linked vampirism and sex, but Dracula's first outing is surprisingly restrained. There's nothing wrong with the intersection of eroticism and vampires, but the absolute deluge of recent vampire stories has made it a little exhausting. Dracula isn't perfect, but it's offering something different: A vampire story that distinguishes itself from the scads of same-y films and TV shows featuring the fanged bloodsuckers. Maybe there's a little life left in the vampire after all.