The dog days of summer, when all your favorite shows are off the air. Late August, when it seems like you haven’t seen anything good and new on TV in months. If you’re looking for something to bust you out of a TV rut, the under-the-radar Showtime monster-mashup Penny Dreadful is well worth your time. With stunning visual sense, intriguing characters, and a real ear for good dialogue, this is a show that has a lot going for it. Though it’s a bit uneven at some points, and certainly takes its time building up tension and characters (in a good way), Penny Dreadful is, at times, stunningly sharp and incisively brilliant.
Penny Dreadful has some interesting bloodlines. Creator/writer John Logan and producer Sam Mendes both worked on Skyfall, and two of the actors were a former 007 (Timothy Dalton) and a Bond Girl (Eva Green). Appropriately, a mix-and-match of former James Bond alumni come together for a mix-and-match of Gothic horror. Set in Victorian London, Penny Dreadful is a pastiche of classic horror faces – Dracula, Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, and Van Helsing are a few of the classic names that crop up, and although it’s not a particularly innovative idea to cross the streams and mash-up classic movie monsters, it’s also not a bad idea if you do it right.
I haven’t watched the full season yet, but from the episodes I have watched, the basic premise seems to be a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen-type setup, where the cast bands together to investigate/fight a bunch of classic monsters, except that each member of the cast has their own axe to grind, their own personal demons.
Lest the unfamiliar setting and unexplained occurrences throw one off, there’s a pretty solid Everyman in the form of (Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a traveling gunslinger for a West West show who gets drawn into the supernatural world by the mysterious Vanessa Ives (the aforementioned Eva Green, who drew a lot of attention for her understated, charged performance as Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale)
Remember her and how awesome it was that she wasn’t a stereotypical Bond Girl?
The world-famous explorer Malcolm Murray and Miss Ives recruit Chandler as a hired gun as they investigate a below-ground house of horrors for reasons unknown (or only hinted at), where Murray stakes a creature (a vampire), and they take the body to a brilliant young anatomist for analysis, a man who just happens to be named Victor… and we’re off to the races.
The thing that immediately jumps out at you with Penny Dreadful is how visually stunning it is. Shots are careful, deliberate, and allowed to linger in a way that television really doesn’t do often. The show creates and cultivates a mood using just the power of cinematography:
The opening credits certainly set an appropriately creepy mood.
Looks a little Dexter-esque, doesn’t it?
But if the visuals alone aren’t enough to pique your interest, here are some other standout qualities:
-Mood Whiplash. A good show uses Mood Whiplash like a scalpel, and boy, do the first few episodes provide a few corkers. Take, for example, Frankenstein’s walk along the docks with his creation, Proteus, in all his innocent excitement. Their chance encounter with Ethan and Brona Croft (we’ll get to her in a moment) is straight out of a screwball comedy – the awkward pauses, the cheery, almost goofy turns of phrase. To go from a scene like that – lighthearted, yet vaguely tense because as the audience we know the Frankenstein/Frankenstein’s Monster narrative is not a happy one – to the scene in the lab where (spoiler alert), Proteus is literally torn apart is a HUGE whiplash moment that is pulled off VERY well. That hand coming out of Proteus’s chest literally dropped my jaw. That’s one example out of a few just in the first few episodes.
– Brona Croft isn’t even IN the first episode, yet her washed-up, jaded cheerfulness and Irish accent make the show better just by existing.
– Mystery wrapped in enigma. Penny Dreadful keeps its cards close to the chest, and for a show with such familiar, well-trodden ground as Dracula and Victor Frankenstein, it does a great job of keeping you off balance. Themes of life, death, and resurrection abound, and in just the first few episodes you have plenty of questions: what happened to Malcolm’s daughter really? What exactly haunts Vanessa Ives? What do hieroglyphics have to do with vampires? Is Josh Hartnett’s entire job to say quippy one-liners and be astoundingly American?
This show is worth a look, even if at some points you’ll be looking through your fingers waiting for the predictable jump-scare. Get through the uneven first ten minutes, and you’ll find gold.