Monday, October 28, 2013

Brief Reviews: Reign, Ravenswood, Dracula


Reign (Thursdays at 9:00 on The CW)

There's not much to The CW's costume drama. It's a bit of a departure for the network, seemingly their attempt to cash in on the popularity of both Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, but the way Reign is presented makes you realize that it's not so different from the sudsy teen angst The CW originally became famous for.

Teenage Mary Stuart (a bland Adelaide Kane) has been locked in a French convent for most of her life in an attempt to avoid assassination. As she comes of age, her planned betrothal to the heir of the French kingdom, Francis (Toby Regbo), nears. Mary goes to live with Francis and his parents, King Henry (Alan Van Sprang, The Tudors) and Queen Catherine de' Medici (Megan Follows), but her reign is soon called into question due to shifting politics. There, she is reunited with three childhood friends who become her ladies in waiting, and introduced to Francis's illegitimate half-brother Sebastian (Torrance Coombs). Mary soon realizes that her reputation and even her life are in jeopardy at every turn as her enemies try to bring her down.

There's nothing particularly interesting about Reign. The show's premise is centered around the least interesting period in Mary Stuart's life, a time when she lived in seclusion and merely awaited becoming Queen. Had this series been about her later life and her infamous feud with Elizabeth, including her imprisonment and her many attempts at murder, there might have been some interest. But to fit in with the CW's target demographic, this is about a boring period of Mary's life, spiced up by inventing characters (such as Sebastian) to create a love triangle and attempting to add some elements of the supernatural. But underneath all this fake history, Reign is just another teen soap. It's Gossip Girl with intricate costumes. This isn't surprising considering co-creator Laurie McCarthy's past work includes writing several episodes of Beverly Hills, 90210 and Felicity, while co-creator Stephanie Sengupta has contributed to many police procedurals (Hawaii Five-0, Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent). Their specialties are balanced evenly in the pilot script, with equal parts absurd teenage drama and standard mystery. It's pretty boring stuff, though the pilot was gorgeous to look at with its sweeping views of Europe thanks to an expensive on-location shoot that won't be happening for the rest of the series. The costumes are above average as well, but nothing visual can save Reign from its pedestrian plotting and lifeless cast.

Ravenswood (Tuesdays at 8:00 on ABC Family)

In theory, I really like Ravenswood. It's fun, kind of spooky, and really dark (both physically and tonally). It's equal parts mystery and ghost story, with elements of redemption and coming of age. In other words, it's an ideal show for a network like ABC Family to air during the Halloween season.

Caleb (Tyler Blackburn), Hannah's boyfriend from parent series Pretty Little Liars, travels to Ravenswood on Halloween to help the Liars uncover more information about their stalker(s). But on the way he meets a kindred spirit in Miranda (Nicole Gale Anderson), a fellow foster kid looking to retrace her family's roots back to the bizarre, death-laden town of Ravenswood. They end up locating her uncle, Raymond Collins (Steven Cabral), the town mortician, whose assistant is Mrs. Grunwold (Meg Foster), the former house mistress at a nearby college whom we met last season on Pretty Little Liars. This connection doesn't make much sense, but no matter since it still makes more sense than last season of American Horror Story... but I digress. Miranda and Caleb ask Collins about the prominent and expansive graveyard, convinced the two of them saw their own names and faces on tombstones. He makes wide eyes, crinkles his face, and refuses to answer. So they seek out help from Remy (Britne Oldford), whose father runs the town newspaper, and realize they are all (along with twin teens reeling from the death of their father, potentially at the hands of their mother) caught in a repeating curse that ends with five dead teenagers.

It's a totally hokey, very cheesy plot with some inconsistencies (Mrs. Grunwold being the most obvious) and a seriously heavy hand. The cinematography nearly washes out the cast completely, though that's not always a bad thing considering how melodramatic they mostly are. Cabral especially is ridiculous as the town undertaker (Could the attempt at chills be more obvious than to set the show in a funeral home?), a combination of Igor and Riff Raff, if both were attractive and young. Blackburn is appealing though, and he's more than up to the task of carrying Ravenswood. His support varies from adequate (Anderson, Oldford, Foster) to barely passable (Brett Dier as one of the grieving twins). But in a show like this, what else could one expect?

The only reason I find Ravenswood to be a bit of a disappointment, because it really does deliver on its promise of fun, young adult eeriness, is in its placement within the world of Pretty Little Liars. Do the Liars really exist in a world full of ghosts and curses? Is it going to turn out that Ali's ghost is the one texting/stalking/threatening them? This development of supernatural happenings in the Liars universe just complicates and muddies things (well, more than they already are, I suppose) on the parent series. And since Ravenswood features a prominent Liars character and will feature appearances from Hannah in the future, viewers can't really accept it as a wholly separate entity. So if you don't mind that this show potentially screws up the entire mythology of Pretty Little Liars, then you'll enjoy it.

Dracula (Fridays at 10:00 on NBC)

Regardless of the fact that Dracula is probably the most attractive pilot of the entire season, it's myriad other problems can't be overshadowed by beautiful costumes and art direction.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers is the titular vampire in newcomer Cole Haddon's adaptation of Bram Stoker's famed novel. And what a loose adaptation it is. In this version, Dracula is awakened from a centuries-old sleep by Van Helsing (yeah, the one who's supposed to be hunting and trying to kill him). He attempts to blend into society by posing as an American energy tycoon named Alexander Grayson (no relation to Victoria and Connor over in the Hamptons on ABC's Revenge, I'm sure). Mina Murray (Arrow's Jessica De Gouw) is now a medical student, and her boyfriend Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Mr. Selfridge) is an ambitious journalist. Harker wants to interview Grayson/Dracula about his new invention: clean energy in the form of electromagnetic-something-or-other, wireless light bulbs. Yes, this Dracula is concerned with saving the planet. Or is he? As the pilot goes on, we learn that Dracula really wants to bring down the Order of the Dragon, a secret society of vampire hunters who also happen to be involved in Big Oil.

Yeah, seriously. The true villain in NBC's new Dracula adaptation isn't the terrifying blood-sucking, shape-shifting, dream-invading vampire that has haunted readers for over a century now. No, the true villain here is Big Oil. I couldn't make that shit up.

So aside from the extreme bastardization of Stoker's characters (Renfield also makes an appearance, but here he isn't the insect-eating, asylum-bound apostle of the novel but rather an African-American bodyguard), Dracula can't even manage to tell a good story. There's obviously some nonsense about Mina potentially being Dracula's true love because she's his former Romanian wife reincarnated, but that's to be expected with modern retellings; we always have to add a romance. The real crime is that Dracula isn't scary or threatening. We see him quietly feasting on street walkers and snarling at the camera in full vamp-face in the pilot's opening moments, but other than that, Dracula spends most of the episode pretending to be a nonthreatening American playboy. Where's the fun in that? Why even make the show about Dracula if you really just want to tell a story about corporate greed vs. grassroots alternatives and the resulting class struggle? It's frustrating as all hell. This should have been Downton Abbey on crack, but instead it's a mishmash of historical inaccuracies (Mina would not have been in med school, damn it), nonsensical plot points, and an endless parade of bland characters.

But the costumes and art direction really are stunning. If you just want something pleasing to the eye, go right ahead and dive in to Dracula. But if you care about things like character and story, avoid this one at all costs.

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