If you like your horror shows of the boutique variety, then Showtime’s grim new supernatural series, Penny Dreadful is definitely for you. It has an element of the insidious, and an intellect that is brand new to this moment in television. Crisply shot, and saturated with deep colors, it has a gritty sophistication that makes me feel like I am participating with a higher art. This show is as prim as you would expect from a show set in Victorian England, but has a grisly edge that feels deliciously incongruent to the audience, making it one of my new favorites already.
The Victorian setting contributes to the allure of this show because there is something about this period that adds an extra layer of mystery to tales we are already desperately familiar with. The idea of Penny Dreadful is not terribly new, nor are the characters ones we haven’t seen before, piecing together familiar horror legends like Dr. Frankenstein with characters from the American wild west. The show combines a lot of familiar supernatural mythology into one space, and relies heavily on the audience’s knowledge of Romantic and Gothic lore – trust me, you know more that you think (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes are all from this period). I hope that doesn’t scare you off – it has a lot to offer.
For instance, Timothy Dalton plays the role of the Van Helsing-esque character, Sir Malcolm Murray. Steeped in
mystery and very worldly, he very well could have been the “ world’s most interesting man” of the nineteenth century. Calling on our familiarity of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Sir Malcolm, is chasing down the creature that kidnapped his daughter long ago (and by creature, I mean Victorian vampire with female attendants of the Bram Stroker variety). Dalton is menacing as well as vulnerable (remember, he IS looking to reclaim his daughter), and lends to the grave tone of the show – which doesn’t let up. The show takes itself pretty seriously, and lacks the camp other shows in this genre offer – if you’re looking for another American Horror Story, don’t bother. It’s not that kind of show.
The bulk of the first few episodes is Sir Malcolm assembling his alliances to help him track down the creature and hunting down leads; this reveals his mysterious partnership with an equally enigmatic Vanessa Ives, played by the
porcelain and tightly poised Eva Green. Vanessa may or may not be possessed by the devil (episode three weighs in on this maybe pretty hard) and may or may not have something to do with Sir Malcolm’s daughter’s disappearance, but the series is far less concerned with exposition than with producing an extremely beautiful visual texture that is going to be the signature of the series. Also, I can already tell this show is not one for quick pacing or cheap, scare tactics, as it takes it time giving into the story, and doesn’t flinch away from scenes that are hard to watch. But I digress…
Vanessa plays Sir Malcolm’s girl-Friday and uses her gifts, both practical and supernatural, to help him assemble the entourage he needs. Her practical skills mirror those of Sherlock Holmes’ skills of deduction. When she first meets the American performer, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), she offers him a summation of his life within only a few moments of meeting him, and then, later, using her supernatural gifts, reads his tarot cards to reveal the ‘lovers’ (as in future lovers, perhaps?). She is by far the most intriguing of the group, as she is the combination of many well-known characters of the nineteenth century. There is also something so controlled and menacing about her – she faces down the vampire creature and hauls the corpse into see another of the period’s infamous scientists and doesn’t take no for an answer when the haughty doctor turns her away.
This doctor just happens to be the legendary Victor Frankenstein, played by the twitchy, crazy-eyed Harry
Treadaway. This is my first experience with this actor, and I am smitten with his portrayal of Frankenstein as a high-strung, macabre, young scientist obsessed with the “thin veil between life and death.” This foreshadows a chilling (although familiar) scene at the end of the hour between Frankenstein and his monster that (and I am unashamed about this) brought tears to my eyes. It would seem like this moment has been done to death, and that there is little new ground to cover, but Penny Dreadful finds a way to make it seem like the first time I’m seeing it.
What doesn’t ring so new, however, is Josh Hartnett’s portrayal as the less-informed American cowboy. While I see the potential here for this character to evolve into something more than the foil for the other, more in-the-know, sophisticated British characters, for now, Chandler is just a sloppy, second thought to the other, more fleshed out plotlines. He does get slightly more interesting when he enters into a relationship with Billie Piper’s prostitute character. That came out far snarkier than I meant it to, I swear. He is handsome, and rugged, and his charming American bravado is relief to the buttoned down Vanessa and Sir Malcolm.
You can catch up on the show everywhere, even YouTube. For all future episodes, however, I’ll be writing weekly recaps and reacts for Penny Dreadful. I’d very much like to hear what you think about this cool new show, and if it measures up to my review of the first episde. Tweet me @sroseholt and leave your comments below.