Showtime gets in on the horror trend with its latest series, Penny Dreadful, an eight episode monster mash. So is it worth checking out?
Let’s bitch it out…The short answer to the above question is: absolutely.
The long answer is: absolutely – though you may need to exercise a little bit of patience. Penny Dreadful announces its moody, atmospheric intentions early in the first episode, ‘Night Work’, but we spend the majority of the fifty minute run-time without a sense of what is going on or who these people are. If you’ve seen or read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and if you haven’t read the graphic novels and skip the film), then you likely have an inkling about who these people are. While Penny Dreadful is not an adaptation of Alan Moore’s amazing series, it does bear a striking resemblance to its all-star Victorian monster mash narrative.
If you’re into plot, these eight episodes may prove a little burdensome, at least in the early going on. This is a show that’s clearly interested in cultivating a particular mood, and its characters react appropriately, refusing to divulge their tales or connections. In this way the fantastic set-design and costuming (which looks really expensive) helps out a great deal. The pilot isn’t simply pretty people in period clothes talking about nothing, though; the first major action sequence in the basement of the opium den is striking and unexpected if only because it’s such an unexpected heady mix of gore, T&A and violent scares.
In truth what I liked most about ‘Night Work’ is the acting, in particular Eva Green as spiritualist Vanessa Ives. I’ve been following Green since her big break-out in the James Bond reboot (v.2) Casino Royale. She doesn’t always appear in great things, but damn if her dedication to her characters isn’t always compelling and watchable. There’s a lot going on with Vanessa Ives and her de facto position as (partial) leader of this ragtag search party is one of the show’s wisest decisions. Also: no one can deliver sexy, sultry, sarcastic, intelligent dialogue quite like Green.
Her near-equivalent is a huge surprise to me. I haven’t seen a great deal of Timothy Dalton films outside of Bond films and a few others (<3The Rocketeer), so I feel like I’m naturally predispositioned to consider him either a villain or a man with a very rough exterior. Adventurer/explorer Sir Malcolm isn’t soft by any standards, but he’s a far more interesting, three dimensional character than I’m used to seeing from Dalton. I tuned in for Green, but Dalton may be Penny Dreadful‘s biggest surprise.
- I’m unsure if Josh Harnett is meant to be the “American draw” in a mostly international cast? If so, I think that the people behind the series may have mistakenly overestimated his appeal. Harnett’s not bad, but as American gunfighter Ethan Chandler, he pretty much only does what he needs to. It feels very similar in function to Shane West’s character in the film version of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which is not a compliment.
- I’m intrigued by Doctor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway). Writer/creator John Logan clearly wants the identities of some of the characters held back (in this case using Frankenstein’s identity as an episode ending cliffhanger), but the doctor’s obsession with dead bodies earmark him pretty quickly (Side Note: Showtime’s advertising also spills the beans, clearly indicating that the series is about classic monsters intersecting). As it stands, the creation of Dr Frankenstein’s monster (Alex Price –edited) is one of the episode’s show-pieces: a scene that makes the birthing sequence feel original and more than a little homoerotic. It’s a new twist on a very familiar idea if nothing else!
- Finally, some readers inquired in advance if the series was scary (like The Walking Dead) or gross (like American Horror Story). I’d argue that it falls somewhere in between. The grisly abduction and murder that opens the episode is pretty graphic, but the scene when Sir Malcolm is visited by his vampire daughter is classic horror. I hope that the series can continue to balance its elements because thus far the mix is very satisfactory.
- Vanessa (to Ethan, when he asks if she has a name): “Yes.”
- Simon Russell Beale’s Mr Lyle (after being introduced to Vanessa): “Could I be more charmed? No, I could not.”
What’s your take on Penny Dreadful: are you surprised at its quality? Is it a good enough balance of scares and gore? Is Vanessa Ives the best character? Is Ethan too boring? And will you be coming back next week? Sound off below.
Penny Dreadful airs Sundays at 10pm EST on Showtime. Next week introduces Billie Piper’s character and rumour has it that Green absolutely nails a seance scene.