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Thanks to Twilight, vampire fangs have gone limp. The monsters of lore have become neutered romantics, who'd rather swallow their every instinct than a pint of human blood. But finally, NBC has presented us with a bloodsucking alternative -- and one that will hopefully help combat the world's current vampire fatigue.
Set in Victorian England, Dracula (Friday, 10/9c, NBC) isn't the story of the famed vamp as we've come to know him. Instead, the series draws upon the monster's own inspiration, Vlad Tepes (a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler), played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. It's this former Bulgarian warrior who is Dracula's true protagonist, though he spends most of his time masquerading as Alexander Grayson, an American industrialist. Only when it's absolutely necessary — or when he's hungry — does Vlad ever reveal the monster within (aka Dracula).
In his human life, Vlad was a member of The Order of the Dragon, a Christian fundamentalist group keen on spreading their influence across the globe. Unhappy with Vlad's impious behavior, The Order punished Vlad by killing his wife, Ilona, and banishing him to the night. Unfortunately, The Order wasn't prepared to control their new creation, setting up an immortal rivalry between the society and vampires.
This thirst for revenge is what inspires Vlad to take up a surprising partnership with Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann), a professor who shares a bitter hatred for the clandestine organization who murdered his family. Together, they battle The Order's tyranny on the Victorian battleground by attacking their control over the world's energy sources. It's an oddly bureaucratic means of warfare, but Dracula doesn't shy away from violence. When the vamp tears into the arteries of his prey, the series embraces a gruesome realness rarely seen in modern vampire tales.
And what's some violence without a little sex? The penetration, the loss of innocence, the intimacy of the consumption — everything about vampires is grotesquely erotic (something Meyers' waxy complexion and beady eyes lends itself to perfectly). In the novel, vampires are used to represent the horror of the sexually liberated female, but in NBC's version, the biggest threat to patriarchal purity comes from the women themselves. Each of the heroines — Mina, an ambitious medical student; Lucy (Katie McGrath), her secretly gay best friend; and Lady Jayne (Victoria Smurfit), the first female vampire hunter — struggle to balance what they want with what society refuses to let them have: power — over their sexuality, their dreams and their futures.
For Mina, she must also fight her desire for "Grayson," with whom she shares an unexplained connection (which might have something to do with the fact that she looks identical to Vlad's dead wife). Mina's resemblance to Ilona reignites Vlad's humanity which, other than in his tender friendship with Renfield (Nonso Anozie), has remained dormant since he turned. Mina's engagement to Vlad's social climbing employee Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) further complicates their relationship, but we have a feeling the pair won't be able to resist indulging their fantasies for long. (Though, one shouldn't forget that it was Dracula's bond with Mina that ultimately led to his downfall in the novel.)
Those familiar with Stoker's work will appreciate the way themes and characters from the original have been seamlessly woven into this interpretation, each twisted so the source could easily go unrecognized, while fans of the BBC will find surprising enjoyment in the series' stylization and pacing. Dracula often feels more like a period drama rather than a full-on horror show. And though there are moments when Dracula veers into camp, there's a playfulness to those moments that feels intentional rather than embarrassing.
Dracula's Friday timeslot might make it a tough sell, but fans of vampires — real vampires — will love how the show embraces what vampires truly are: monsters we can't resist.
Dracula premieres Friday at 10/9c on NBC.