Netflix/BBC’s Dracula is “Clever” (a Review)

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Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss received a lot of praise, and eventually flack for what they did with their massive adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes mythos in Sherlock. It was safe to say that went off the rails and ended badly (evil mastermind super criminal sister, sure…). Some say now that it was always sub-par and a bad adaption. Those comments made whatever the duo decided to work on next interesting and something you’d have to see.

Dracula, a Netflix original everywhere except in England, is the most “clever” adaptation you could possibly make. It wants to focus on the mysteries of vampiric powers, and writing scenes to show how smart they are at making twists.

Each of the three episodes tell a different story. The first introduced Jonathan Harker , Agatha Van Helsing, and Dracula himself, and tells an adapted haunted house tale of Harker meeting Dracula, and Dracula’s plan of draining his life in preparation to go to England.

The second episode is a story Dracula tells to Agatha about his journey to England on the Demeter while playing a chess game. The story becomes a murder mystery with Dracula killing off the eclectic cast, with each of the passengers hiding some secret to be revealed. Only there are bigger mysteries become a meta commentary on what feels like Gatiss and Moffat’s own hype in being smart with twists and reveals.

The third episode moves the story into the present. Dracula emerges from the ending of the last episode and is being hunted by a descendant of Van Helsing. Meanwhile med student Jack Seward is brought in by the Jonathan Harker Institute to interact and give blood to the vampire’s of the world, and Lucy Westenra finds love. It gets more complicated, as they tend to do. Lawyers are literally involved in the plot.

The most frustrating element about the show is that for all its hokey twists, turns, and reveals I am not sure if it works in spite of itself, or that the characters work so well that I ignore just how painful some of the reveals can be. See, even at Sherlock’s worst (a secret best friend he remembered as a dog was a reveal they had) the characters were just so innately watchable. This show continues that trend even as the cast changes over the three episodes. Every character has at least one solid and defined trait that makes us honestly care for them.

The standouts are of course lead Claes Bang as Dracula and Dolly West as Agatha Van Helsing.

Bang imbues Dracula with the snarky witticism, and peculiarities of all Steven Moffat leads. It makes him really enjoyable to see in screen, while also telling me that this was made for the same crowd of hyper fans who shipped Sherlock and Moriarty. He is both menacing, and charming. It gets what it needs to across, but also feels so, so icky when he is having clever back and forths with the other characters. It feels like they want chibi art of him all over Tumblr and how cute he is. Claes plays that take well, but also, yikes (imagine doing this same thing to a real life villain).

Dolly West’s, Agatha Van Helsing both accentuates and exacerbates the problem. On her own Agatha is a fantastic character. She is driven, smart, quick, quick witted, very funny, and commanding. It’s not hard to see her being the absolute standout of the show, and also a great role model (actual role model of a smart person being good, not a jerk who is up his own rear). Her failings come from her drive to solve Dracula in what feels like the whole premise of the show: “Why is everything so arbitrary with Dracula?” She does discover an answer, but also feels like it is missing the forest for the trees.

Not all of the cleverness this show does or does not have works from time to time. Some of the man out of time in episode three works. The reuse of the same scenes to give additional context each time they cut back works. The really goofy double entendres about being alive, dead, and drinking do work (it is as intended even as I think so much of it is just silly).

A nagging feeling was in the back of my mind the whole series, and the end solidified it for me. This show wants to the Hannibal TV show. It wants to reinterpret the famed villain in a new light by giving him a fun accent, make him smart, high society, charming, and tied to his very opposite who is trying to take him down. It is not even hard to see Mads Mikkelsen as this version of Count Dracula they are so close.

The drive to be like Hannibal (the TV show) goes deep into its production. It is a gorgeous looking show. They get big sets, gothic buildings, ruins, boats, and modern cities to look like nothing else. They really push just how haunting all those places can be. A church convent has both never looked so inviting and creepy at once.

They also think they get the mind games and visual imagery of Hannibal. Hannibal, if you haven’t watched it, uses many mind games, illusions, and visual metaphors to pull its themes to the forefront. This show apes the slow motion visuals, abstract symbols, and naturalistic locations to be like that show. It just does not understand why that show did it. It uses those tools here to be visually pleasing and ace an intro to film college course. Sure it is very clever that getting blood bonds two separate pallets, but you can do so much more with less.

Dracula feels like a show made for high school students. It acts like it is more complex, has a number of twists and reveals for the sake of itself to prove how good at telling stories they are, and makes one of the principal characters a charming villain to make goth kids think he’s cool and buy his Pop Figure at Hot Topic. Then again, Lost had many of those same issues and that was a mass market sensation.

The show does feel like Gatiss and Moffat have evolved and taken some of the criticism of Sherlock to heart. I did overall enjoy the experience watching it, but the feeling to prove how nice a twist it is that what we were being shown was all in someone’s head, or withholding information feels cool, but it can also be read as cheap.

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