Few locations and time periods have been the source of such constant fascination as Victorian London, the setting of Showtime’s newest drama series Penny Dreadful. Though some recent series (mostly on PBS) have flirted with going on monarch further — Edwardian, that is — most series prefer to depict the gritty and somehow more supernatural time of the Victorians, the setting of so much horror literature. This is Penny Dreadful‘s design, and writer/creator John Logan (Skyfall) uses it to its maximum, finding a way to make some of these very old stories feel new again. Hit the jump for more.
Like so many other prestige dramas on TV, Penny Dreadful is purposefully giving itself restrictions. The season is set to run eight episodes, all written by Logan, and directed by four directors in sets of twos (which should lend at least duos of consistency). It also has employed a number of movie actors for the small screen: Eva Green as the mysterious and alluring medium Vanessa Ives, Timothy Dalton as the brave explorer Sir Malcolm Murray, and Josh Hartnett playing a role that exactly fits him best — a befuddled American who doesn’t understand what’s going on, but is willing to try.
Upcoming episodes will also feature other recognizable faces, but for now, those three, plus Harry Treadaway as Victor Frankenstein (no introduction needed) make up a band of sundries brought together to help Sir Malcolm on his quest to rescue his daughter (the future Mina Harker, one can assume) from what Vanessa refers to as “the demi-monde” (i.e. the Netherworld).
The monsters of the demi-monde are plentiful and gruesome, as Penny Dreadful wasted no time in showing us. The show’s biggest triumph so far though is taking these old monster archetypes, and making them feel new (and frightening). The vampires don’t sparkle, and they aren’t running clubs in the Louisiana backwoods, they’re utterly terrifying and horribly gruesome, existing in blood and corpse-filled chambers that include dead pregnant women and small children. This is not a PG death chamber, it’s the stuff of nightmare, as is the vampire exoskeleton that Victor discovers, and which Sir Malcolm takes to renowned Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) to decipher.
The excellent premiere showed off what the series has to offer: old-school frights (like that exceptionally well-rendered final scene between Frankenstein and his monster), lush and detailed set design, and an intriguing non-plot that serves to essentially get all of these well-known characters together in one place at one time (future episodes will feature Van Helsing and others).
This last aspect is the most tenuous. In my notes I wrote down “like a young Frankenstein” for Victor’s character upon introduction, and lo, he is indeed the very same. These characters and the supernaturals they are fighting have been done, and done again, since they were first imagined. And yet, Penny Dreadful did prove in the premiere that it clearly has a plan to infuse new life (so to speak) into these old names and situations.
And frankly, the series is just flat-out freaky. Instead of relying on sudden musical cues or jump cuts, J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage), who directs the first two episodes, waits on the visual revelations. We know that whatever gruesome scene they are taking a picture of is going to be terrible, or that the vampires the trio fight on their way into the corpse chamber have abilities, but there’s restraint in how they are shown. The best moment is of course the very, very slow reveal that Frankenstein’s monster is not a thing to be frightened of once he’s resurrected (and jumps off of the table in the dark), but like a child in need of reassurance. Viewers might need some before going to sleep, too. And then we want more.
Episode Rating: A
Musings and Miscellanea:
– When in doubt, blame Jack the Ripper.
– Bravo, Showtime, for showing several penises in this episode. Take that, HBO. (Look, I’m not saying I want to see a lot of penises on screen, but in the name of equality… even if they are on a corpse, you know, whatever.).
– Ethan to his quick lay: “I will never forget you.” Quick lay: “Then you might want to know my name.” Nope!
– Baby corpses, though.
– And flesh-eating beetles …
– “Who he fuck are you people?” – Ethan. About sums it up!
– “That place where science and superstition walk hand in hand” – Sir Malcolm.