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‘Dracula’ deserves a chance

Bisexual controversy aside, new series is bloody fun

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Dracula, gay news, Washington Blade

The new ‘Dracula’ series is available now on Netflix. (Photo courtesy Netflix)

It’s already become fashionable to bash the new “Dracula” series unleashed on the world with the new year by “Sherlock” creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt.

Co-produced by the BBC and Netflix, the latest incarnation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic became queer news late last year when Gatiss (who is out) teased that its re-imagined title character would have bisexual appetites, immediately piquing the interest of queer horror lovers the world over.

Things began to turn, however, when co-creator Moffatt “clarified” by telling The Times that ‘bisexual” was not exactly the right word to describe the show’s vision of the Count. “He’s bi-homicidal, it’s not the same thing,” he said. “He’s killing them, not dating them.”

Controversy ensued, of course. Online commentators suggested that the BBC had engaged in “queer-baiting” to draw LGBTQ viewers to the show, and some took Gatiss’ additional comments that “horror should be transgressive” to imply that the bisexual overtones themselves were meant to be shocking – an outdated concept in 2020, to be sure.

When the show dropped on Jan. 1 (on BBC One in the UK and Netflix in the U.S.), the “bi-vampire-curious” among us got all our questions answered – and those answers, it seems, were not the ones most of us wanted.

Any real discussion of whether this “Dracula” works is dependent on “spoilers,” thanks to the nature of its narrative conceits, so readers beyond this point should consider themselves warned.

The details of Stoker’s novel are well-known, of course, and this latest renovation remains surprisingly faithful to them, all things considered; but as any follower of Gatiss and Moffatt’s career knows, much of the magic in their work – most notably, their modern-day “Sherlock,” which made Benedict Cumberbatch the household name everybody loved to mispronounce – hinges on the way they shatter an already-familiar story and re-assemble its shards into something that feels entirely fresh.

When it works, it’s breathtakingly enjoyable. For many viewers, it seems, the problem with their “Dracula” is that it just doesn’t.

Comprised of three feature-length episodes, the series begins in much the same way as almost every version of the tale, with the arrival of solicitor Jonathan Harker at the mysterious Romanian castle where Dracula has spent centuries draining his neighbors of their blood. This time, his story is told in flashback, as he relates his harrowing experiences there to a nun at a convent to which he has barely escaped with his life – or so he thinks. The Count, he tells her, had hired him as an agent to set up a relocation to England, in hope of finding meals with more “flavor” than the superstitious and unsophisticated locals are able to provide.

It’s here where we discover that the “bisexual” spin was not altogether wrong; Dracula’s “wooing” of Harker is overtly homoerotic (by which tactic the unfortunate lawyer is not unmoved), and he ultimately refers to the young man as his “favorite bride.” Yet ultimately, it’s all a ploy; like all of Dracula’s attractions, it’s based on blood, not sex, and anyone hoping for a queer vampire love story would be well-advised to look instead to the books of Anne Rice.

By the end of the first installment, we have learned that the situation is both nothing like what we are being told and exactly what we think it looks like, and also that the increasingly hard-edged and interrogative nun is none other than the Gatiss-Moffat reinvention of Dracula’s equally iconic arch-nemesis, Dr. Van Helsing, having been given both a gender-flip and considerably more sass. Up to this point, most viewers seem to have been all in.

It’s with the second episode that audience opinions seem to split. Documenting the Count’s sea voyage to England, it expands the Stoker novel’s six-page account into an Agatha Christie-style “And Then There Were None” scenario (which includes a doomed gay couple within the mix – again, not the supernatural romance we might have wished, but more than a token nod to representation, at least) before unexpectedly having Dracula finally set foot on English soil smack in the middle of modern times. This climactic reveal – along with the presence of a new and doubly-determined Van Helsing (no longer a nun but still female) – sets up a final chapter in which, if social media can be considered a valid gauge, the whole thing falls apart into a disappointing and frustrating mess.

Contemporary setting notwithstanding, many of the book’s characters still put in an appearance, such as the tragic Lucy, whose journey from hopeful bride to walking corpse is here played out by a lovely young social media influencer – who also happens to be a woman of color with gay BFF, adding a few more points for to the diversity scale. It’s the tale’s final twist, however, that has left many viewers feeling cheated, betrayed, or otherwise victimized by the series.

That final revelation will remain unspoiled here. What matters more is that a lot of people seem to really hate it. Like disgruntled “Star Wars” or Marvel fans who take to the internet to campaign against creative choices with which they disagree, so too have “Dracula” purists seem to have embraced the new series as the latest example of how a thing they love has been “ruined.”

It would be hard to argue that the latest offering from Gatiss and Moffatt is a masterpiece. Its cleverness is often too deliberate, its glibness too self-referential, and its horror too perfunctory; and while Dolly Wells is a show-stealing wonder as the durable Van Helsing, Danish actor Claes Bang can’t quite manage the delicate balance between camp and menace that is required to make Dracula the sexy beast we all want to see – though admittedly, he tries his best to shine through the sometimes ridiculous dialogue he’s been given to work with.

Even so, “Dracula” was never high art. It was a purely commercial endeavor for Stoker, and even the iconic 1931 movie version starring Bela Lugosi was a clunky potboiler, even for its day. Every screen retelling has remade the durable tale in the image of the day, from the bloodthirsty horror of Christopher Lee’s popular incarnation to the subversive proto-goth allure of Gary Oldman’s romantic outsider in Francis Coppola’s divisive 1992 adaptation, and the best of them have always made bold choices in order to bring some meaning to the proceedings beyond the archetypal horror that drives the original novel.

Gatiss and Moffatt have done no less, and if the result flies in the face of expectation, it can hardly be helped. Instead of simply telling us a story we already know, they have taken the core of the vampire mystique – the seductive appeal of death itself – and made it the focus of a meditation that happens to also be a lurid, not-to-be-taken-too-seriously guilty pleasure. For those who prefer their classics as-is, that might understandably be a deal-breaker.

Anyone else should be encouraged to give it a chance. It can be a lot of bloody fun, if you let it.

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Television

Trans woman returns to ‘Jeopardy!’ Monday with three-game win streak

“I know that in my life it’s great to see trans women Out not freaks or other things until only a few years ago was all you ever saw them as”

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Screenshot via YouTube

CULVER CITY, Ca. — Amy Schneider, a trans woman from Oakland, will make her fourth “Jeopardy!” appearance Monday after winning three games last week during Trans Awareness Week.

The returning champ has amassed $110,200 in prize money since her win streak started last Wednesday. But her total hasn’t climbed that high without taking risks.

During Friday’s episode, she wagered $15,000. “I was betting the price of a car, which just felt wrong,” she tweeted. “But it paid off again, and I’d topped $100K in total winnings! I’ll repeat that: ONE. HUNDRED. THOUSAND. DOLLARS.”

After her victory on Friday’s show, she told Newsweek that she had been trying to get on the show for over a decade. 

“I’m not sure quite how long [ago I first applied], but I remember trying out when I still lived in Ohio, and I’ve lived in Oakland since 2009, so it has to have been at least that amount of time,” she said. 

Schneider also explained how her transition in 2017 might have helped her finally get a spot on the show. 

“The reality is that for the first few years of that, when I was trying out, I was, as far as any of us knew, a standard white guy,” she told the magazine. “And there’s just more competition for those slots on Jeopardy! They’re making a TV show, they don’t want everybody to look the same, and I looked a lot like many of the other contestants, and I think that definitely made it a little tougher for me at that time. I would have got on eventually — I was never gonna stop trying!”

In the post-Alex Trebek era, multiple trans contestants have appeared on the show, including Kate Freeman, who became the first out trans champion in “Jeopardy!” history last December. 

On Twitter, Schneider thanked previous trans contestants for “blazing the trail!”

In her interview with Newsweek, Schneider also noted the importance of trans visibility. 

“I know that in my life, [it’s great] to see trans women out there, not being the sort of freaks or prostitutes, or other things that until only a few years ago was all you ever saw them as,” she said. “So as that changed, as I’ve been able to see them in other contexts—as the human beings that they are—that’s been really important for me. And so I’m just really glad to be able to do that same thing for other people.”

WATCH: JEOPARDY! S38E50 || November 22th 2021

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Television

Father & son writing team give ‘The Simpsons’ gay character a boyfriend

“And what I think I was really excited about, with this episode, we get to see of how gay people date, how they meet, what it’s like”

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Waylon Smithers (left) kisses his first boyfriend, fashion mogul Michael De Graaf (Photo courtesy of The Simpsons ™ & © 20th Television)

HOLLYWOOD – Rob LaZebnik, 59, one of the creative writers and co-executive producer of the longest running cartoon comedy in American television history, ‘The Simpsons,’ teamed up with his son Johnny, 27, also a television creative writer to produce an episode that gives the character of Waylon Smithers a boyfriend.

The episode set to air on Sunday, November 21 the start of the Thanksgiving holiday week is titled ‘Portrait Of A Lackey On Fire.’ The synopsis for the episode reads: “Smithers finds true love with a famous fashion designer, but will his new relationship destroy Springfield?

The long-suffering assistant to the show’s Über wealthy and twisted maniacal character of Montgomery Burns, falls in love with fashion designer Michael De Graaf, voiced by four time Tony award and six time Emmy award nominated Out actor Victor Garber. Smithers is voiced by Emmy award winner Harry Shearer.

The 2016 season episode of ‘Tom Collins’, had Smithers come out as gay after years of speculation. For the elder LaZebnik, who wrote that episode, his inspiration was his son Johnny who is gay. For the writing duo, this up coming episode brings the storyline full circle as they explore a gay relationship.

In an interview with the New York Post published Thursday, the elder LaZebnik told the paper; “To be able to work with Johnny on this was, like, such a dream and to be able to see how truly funny and talented he is was just, you know, super fun and rewarding.”

His son noted, “I know my dad is a comedy writer. I grew up with him — obviously, I know he’s a funny guy,” Johnny, 27, told The Post. “But actually getting to sit down and write jokes with him was so much fun. And there were some moments where I was like, ‘Dad, that’s disgusting — we can’t put that on television,’ which I didn’t expect to be saying because I’m usually the disgusting one.”

“We now have this piece of content that we put into the world together that is a combined brainpower of the two of us.” 

‘The Simpsons’ writer Rob LaZebnik, right, with his son Johnny
Courtesy of Rob and Johnny LaZebnik

The younger LaZebnik also told the Post; “So often, gay romances are a subplot or alluded to or shown in some kind of montage or as a punchline.

“And what I think I was really excited about, with this episode, we get to see – without spoiling too much – the beginning, middle and who knows how it ends of a gay relationship, of really getting into the nitty-gritty of how gay people date, how they meet, what it’s like.”

He added: “That was really special to me to get to highlight characters who are not punchlines, who are fully formed.”

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Queer ‘whodunit’ fans will love ‘The Long Call’

New limited series puts gay detective on the case

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Ben Aldridge stars in ‘The Long Call.’ (Photo courtesy Britbox)

If there’s anything a year plus of binge-watching has taught us about human beings as a species – yes, including LGBTQ human beings – it’s the fact that we love a good police procedural. And for the true connoisseur, nobody makes a better police procedural than the British. Now, a new limited series from UK network ITV – available in the U.S. via Britbox – has finally given queer “whodunit” fans what we’ve all been waiting for: a gay detective on the case.

 In “The Long Call,” based on the book by popular mystery author Ann Cleeves, DI Matthew Venn takes charge of his very first murder investigation after returning (with a husband in tow) to the small town where he grew up – a place he turned his back on 20 years before when the religious sect in which he was raised refused to accept his sexuality. Now he is being pulled deep into the secrets of a community that once rejected him, forced to confront regrets and resentments he thought he had left behind as the clues in the case point closer and closer to home.

Executed with the polish and nuance one has come to expect from these UK productions, it’s highly recommended for a multitude of reasons. But what makes it particularly appealing to queer viewers is the casting of Ben Aldridge, who himself recently came out publicly as gay, in the central role. Aldridge took time to talk about his experience with the project – and about coming out – with the Blade. Our conversation is below.

BLADE: Were the parallels between you and your character all coincidental?

BEN ALDRIDGE: It’s what drew me to the project in the first place. I’d actually done the read for the audiobook, before it was commissioned as a TV piece, and I wasn’t out publicly at the time but I was like, “I wonder if someone in that publishing house knows that I’m gay?” And I was pleasantly surprised by the book, and how Ann had chosen to write a queer character at the center of one of her novels.

When it came ‘round as a TV piece, and they were interested in me being in it, what drew me in was the exploration of his queerness, how it’s central to his journey and to the whole piece as well. Yes, of course you have the whole thrust of the ‘whodunit’ story – which is why we all love these shows – but it’s the personal focus in it that really intrigued me.

BLADE: It really does make your character’s queerness a core component of the plot

ALDRIDGE: Yes, that’s something I’m particularly proud of about this show, because – I mean representation is at the forefront, and rightly so, of many producers’ and content creators’ minds right now, but there’s a version of this kind of show where that can just be box-ticking, where you’re including queer characters and characters of color without exploring how that affects their life. And this one does explore that. It’s not just a gay detective who happens to have a husband, and we have one scene with them drinking tea together and then we don’t ever talk about his queerness, at all, again.

BLADE: Speaking of talking about queerness, let’s talk about your decision to come out publicly.

ALDRIDGE: It just felt like something I had to do for myself, or claim for myself. I was already very much open in my day-to-day life, anyway, about my sexuality. But doing that publicly – I guess I was protecting some sense of ambiguity, and that was maybe a hangover from early on when, either via osmosis or by direct conversation, I’d been told it would ruin my career. I think that was still with me, quite strongly, even though I’ve said personally and in private to myself for a long while that if my sexuality means I’m not hired for something then I don’t want to work with those people anyway.

But there was some part of me that thought ‘I’ll still maybe fly under this radar, I don’t need to come out and do this.’ And it just got to a point where I was like, ‘Actually, I do need to do this.’ It felt important to me to be visible, and to say who I am and not try and hide from it.

BLADE: And how has it changed things for you?

ALDRIDGE: I feel like something has opened up for me, like there’s this well of emotion that’s available to me that hadn’t been before. To be able to navigate the world and not ever to feel like I’m avoiding or guarding something – I feel like things are better than they ever have been, really.

BLADE: Life is always better when you don’t have to hide significant parts of yourself.

ALDRIDGE: Definitely. And I think I was doing that, managing that, even on a very “micro” level that I wasn’t aware of. To stop doing that is really just… a weight lifted.

And really, the whole fear around actors being out is capitalism. That fear that people won’t pay, or watch, if they can’t believe they can have a relationship with the person that they’re watching. If they can’t suspend their disbelief. I think what we’re slowly discovering is that this actually isn’t the case. 

BLADE: Like your character, you grew up in a strict religious environment. How does that factor into your being out now?

ALDRIDGE: I was raised ‘round the religious right focus of “praying the demons away,” and conversion therapy – it was never spoken to me about directly, but I was certainly around the language of being “cured,” and being “saved” from that. There are people from my past who would struggle with who I am. And I don’t desire to be in a room of people that don’t accept who I am.

BLADE: Finally, since you’re now officially an out and proud actor, where do you fall in the debate over whether straight performers should play LGBTQ+ characters?

ALDRIDGE: It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. I think the important thing is that there is attention being paid to it. We’re in a place of learning, which is great. For me, it can afford to be nuanced. I don’t think we need rules, I think rules are radical, and rules are the opposite of what “queerness” is. Obviously, when queerness is central to a story, then yes, a lived insight is needed to bring that to life. And maybe we do have to force things a bit before we settle into a place where there CAN be more nuance to it – but that doesn’t necessarily mean there has to be a queer actor in a queer role. I think the whole wider creative team needs to be responsible for bringing authenticity, with queer people in the writer’s room, and if the right actor is the right actor, they’ll do a good job. 

I don’t think that it’s as simple as, “Only queer actors for queer parts.”

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