brutal tales of adventure” with little characterization, predominantly marketed to young men. Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, despite its name and the brutality of its gore, is more similar to a gothic sensation novel, with a contemporary penchant for both shocking horror and the stately pace that characterizes TV meant to be considered high-brow. It is American Horror Story crossed with Edith Wharton.
That’s not a bad thing. Set in post-Jack-the-Ripper 1890s London, Penny Dreadful explores a steampunk world in which “science and superstition walk hand-in-hand”: spiritualists, Tarot readers, colonial explorers, American gunslingers, and resurrection men collide in the gritty smog of an industrial England lit by a combination of gas and electricity. The enormity of the British Empire, although never explicitly addressed, makes for an exciting mashup of vampires and the Egyptian book of the dead, downtrodden Americans and snipping Frenchmen, galvanism and orientalism. British literature from Frankenstein (first published 1818) to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (first published 1890) gets its fair share of attention, too.
Writer John Logan, who has garnered Oscar nominations for his screenplays for Gladiator, The Aviator, and Hugo, wrote all eight scripts of the first season. In Penny Dreadful, he draws on a wealth of literary knowledge to build a world that is lush and filled with vibrant characters, some haunted by Jack the Ripper the way we are haunted by 9/11, but others haunted by more traditional specters: vampires, ghosts, and things that go bump in the night.
Logan, however, doesn’t have a TV pedigree: he claims to have seen no television since Murder, She Wrote went off the air. (That’s 1996, for those of you playing along at home.) It shows—and that’s not a bad thing, either. This year’s other TV auteur, Nic Pizzolatto of True Detective, used his background as a novelist to craft beautifully nuanced dialogue. In Penny Dreadful, Logan uses his background as a screenwriter to craft what appears to be an eight-hour-long movie.
That makes the pilot difficult to review, as we are presented with characters, an inciting event, an evocative atmosphere, and hints of future complications, but we receive very few hints about what to expect from each episode. The premise, however, is straightforward: Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) is searching for his daughter, whom he suspects to have been taken by vampires. He recruits Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a former friend of his daughter, to help him. Together, they lure gunslinger Ethan Chandler—played by Josh Hartnett channeling Kurt Russell in Tombstone—and Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) into the mystery of what lurks beneath the veneer of late-Victorian sensibilities.
The pilot walks the fine line between gravitas and camp. Timothy Dalton does a wonderful job of allowing us glimpses of the emotional turmoil beneath his gentleman-explorer exterior, while Eva Green manages sly glances and devout Catholicism with equal aplomb. It’s Dr. Frankenstein who takes himself the most seriously, and Dalton’s Sir Malcolm is more than willing to point out that the good doctor has the “soul of a poet,” which allows the show to acknowledge its cheese and eat it, too.
Early reviews of the series indicate that the pilot is just the beginning. There are more characters to meet, more elements of the supernatural and the spiritualistic to explore. One character in the pilot even makes what appears to be a meta-commentary on the TV-viewer’s desire for fast developments, pointing out that good answers, especially to old mysteries, take time. That slow-and-steady pace is an interesting contrast to the extraordinary amount of carnage and the high-voltage soundtrack, both of which play up the sensational rather than the stately.
The result sounds disjointed—fictional characters wandering around London, old-fashioned development and contemporary gore, cheekiness and gravity—but Penny Dreadful manages to make it all work. Will this be the great surprising gem of the summer television season? Probably not. But it will likely be a fun and well-made series that tells an interesting story in an interesting fashion. There’s nothing dreadful about that.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)