Showtime’s gleefully deranged gothic horror series Penny Dreadful returns tonight, and you should be watching it. Of all the horror series on TV these days — The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, Bates Motel — Penny Dreadful shines because of its obvious reverence for the genre. Where so many shows play in the trappings of horror without ever evoking fear, Penny Dreadful has moments that are genuinely scary. Creator John Logan (Hugo, Skyfall) lavishes in the macabre and grotesque opulence of the Victorian Era, transporting viewers into a cinematic Grand Guignol.
If that didn’t sell you, here are seven reasons Penny Dreadful is must-watch TV.
Each Episode Is Better Than the Last
I’ll say upfront that it was a struggle for me to get into Penny Dreadful. The first season is a slow build – a major character isn’t even introduced until the final moments of episode 2 but, my god, what an introduction. And that sets a pattern; things take time, but they are so worth getting to. The series challenges viewers to pay attention. The characters don’t explain themselves or talk about their plans before they hatch, and whatever exposition is required, Logan conceals it in beautifully crafted, poetic dialogue, throwing words like lilliputian at the audience without blinking. But if you’re patient and pay attention, the reward is an intricately crafted story with both emotional and narrative payoff, and brilliant moments of catharsis.
Every visual element of Penny Dreadful is a stunner. Filmed in the lush lands of Ireland, the series infuses a sumptuous quality to the intricate aesthetic of the Victorian period.The cinematography merits its own paragraph but suffice it to say, a show could not be this beautiful without remarkable talent behind the cameras. The costumes are also exceptional; a slightly gothic spin on Victorian attire, artfully articulated to each character. Dorian Grey’s ostentatious silk shirts, Sir Malcolm’s fastidious ornamentation, Vanessa’s dark, angular silhouettes; they all tell you who the character is, giving you a sense of them before a single word is uttered. The splendid beauty of the show is matched by brutal moments of horror, executed with a fantastic blend of digital and practical effects that are beautiful for their artistry.
The Characters are Captivating
Nothing, and more importantly no one, is what you first expect on Penny Dreadful. Logan’s approach to the iconic characters of Gothic literature defies expectations and delights with surprise. Take Dr. Frankenstein, for example. To the testament of both Logan and actor Harry Treadway, the series answers the question “what is a mad scientist?” with commendable restraint. Frankenstein is a sad, sick child of the industrial revolution; young, inspired by poetry, and compelled by genius. He’s a total creep without ever cackling “madly” into the night. Rory Kinnear, as Frankenstein’s monster, embraces the newborn aspect of the character, bringing the creature to life with an ever-present sense of wonder. And yet the creature, or Caliban as he’s called in the show, also possesses an unexpected articulate, philosophical quality.
Logan also does a brilliant job of creating original characters. Sir Malcolm, the patriarch and patron of the group, is played to perfection by Timothy Dalton, an actor who seemingly has no off-switch for his charm. Sir Malcolm is elegant, seductive, and occasionally despicable. You can’t help but love him. Even the most “human” character in the mix is enchanting. Poor terminally-ill Brona, a spirited Irish prostitute drawn into the extraordinary circumstances of her acquaintances. Billie Piper plays Brona as a real broad; an amicable spitfire tearing down the artifices of Victorian manners with a glint in her eye and a smile on her face. And then, of course, there is Vanessa Ives, Penny Dreadful‘s crowning glory.
Eva Fucking Green
I do not believe that we have words here on earth capable of fully describing the glory of Eva Green, but I’ll do my best. She is elemental. She rages, writhes and enchants on screen with the ferocity of a creature dragged from the center of the earth. It’s a testament to Green’s talents that it’s hard to picture her doing anything mundane. I assume if she gets a parking ticket, it just incinerates in her hand. Logan gives Green the role of a career as Vanessa Ives; one that is fitted to her distinct talents like the proverbial hand in glove. Much like Penny Dreadful itself, Green possesses the unique gift of being beautiful and horrific in a single moment. She flourishes in intensity. In Vanessa Ives we see the battle between good and evil waged within a single person, and it’s captivating. The series demands courageous, vulnerable performances from Green, and in episodes like ‘Séance,’ ‘Closer than Sisters,’ and ‘Possession,’ she delivers in spades.
Josh Hartnett, Doing the Best Work of His Career
It’s long been a popular trend to hate on Josh Hartnett, who somehow evokes an irrational amount of ire. Ever the contrarian, I’ve always thought he was great, but of course the first time I saw him I was 14 and doe-eyed in love. Regardless of your previous take on Harnett, he’s killing it as Ethan Chandler, the gunslinging America expatriate grappling with his dark side. There’s a stalwart quality in Hartnett that can occasionally read as wooden, but here he brings a steadiness and fortitude to the muscle of the gang. And his years as the leading man “heart throb” serve him well, lending the character an unexpected tenderness.
Complex Character Relationships and Worldbuilding
The relationships on Penny Dreadful range from bitterly contemptuous to tenderly loving. There are friends, lovers, allies, rivals, enemies and all those peculiar interactions that hover somewhere in between. The series thrives on the tricky shades of grey that make human relationships so compelling. Logan also has a deft hand at combining the worlds of beloved literary properties. The characters are introduced to each other in organic, clever ways so that the stories of Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Grey and Van Helsing have unexpected intersections that still make sense. Their interactions, whether amicable or rancorous, never feel forced. Motivations always add up and payoffs are always earned.
An Artful Balance Between Intrigue and Resolution
No mystery box here, folks. Season one of Penny Dreadful takes time setting up setting up its narrative plot points, and then knocks them down with extreme prejudice. The story moves ever forward, even in non-linear moments of storytelling, and the major arcs established in the first episodes are resolved by the end of the season. Of course, there is still mystery as we enter the season two. Logan withholds many hallmarks of the famous stories – Dorian Gray’s portrait, the birth of a Frankenstein creature – these reveals are yet to be seen. And the character arcs, particularly those of original characters like Vanessa Ives and Ethan Chandler, have much further to go. But the plot elements are locked up and resolved.
Season 2 Wastes No Time
What the hell could frighten Vanessa? This is the question Penny Dreadful asks in the first episode of its second season, as a new evil and “Fresh Hell” confront group. Helen McCrory is fully unleashed as Madam Kali, a villain that is equal parts camp and menace. McCrory is best known for playing Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, and here she retains Malfoy’s iron poise, but with fire in her heart instead of ice. And if the series faced criticism for its slow start in season one, the second season does not have the same issue. This is a spoiler free article, but let’s just say that by the end of episode 2, it becomes very clear that nobody on Penny Dreadful is even close to fucking around.
These are eight of many reasons you should be watching Penny Dreadful, but mostly you should tune in because it’s damn good TV. You can read Allison’s full review of Season 2 here.