The horror literature of the Victorian era has spawned iconic characters like Victor Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dorian Gray. We've seen them grouped together in a shared universe many times in the past, most notably in the Universal Monsters film franchise and Alan Moore's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." The Showtime and Sky TV series "Penny Dreadful," however, distinguishes itself from the others by fully embracing its Victorian roots. Created by John Logan, with its first two episodes directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, this is a series that is happy to take time unfurling its mysteries, less of a thriller and more of a moody, atmospheric meditation on the nature of monsters.
Our central characters are a gentleman adventurer, Sir. Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a young woman with mysterious connections to the spirit world. They are trying to rescue Sir Malcolm's daughter Mina (Olivia Llewellyn) from the supernatural creatures that have abducted her. Murray and Ives recruit a gifted surgeon, Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and an American sharpshooter, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) to help them. Also in the mix are a hedonistic young gentleman, Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), a prostitute suffering from consumption, Brona Croft (Billie Piper), and a malformed Creature (Rory Kinnear), who works behind the scenes of the Grand Guignol theater.
The first season of "Penny Dreadful" is only eight episodes, and elects to spend its time loosely retelling parts of "Dracula" and "Frankenstein," while quietly laying the groundwork for at least a half dozen other familiar tales. What keeps all the old material invigorated is that the central characters are new, and they're fantastic. Eva Green is absolutely phenomenal as the long-suffering and deeply guilt-ridden Vanessa, and Green can sell a demonic possession like no one else. Timothy Dalton is also a commanding presence as Sir Malcolm, though he doesn't get as much screen time as some of the others. I like Harry Treadaway's version of Frankenstein, who is more sympathetic than the ones I've seen recently, but the jury's still out on Hartnett and Carney, who have had less interesting things to do - but are being set up for much more.
It doesn't surprise me that "Penny Dreadful" didn't catch on with a larger audience, because its approach is so unusual. It's a Gothic horror serial that actually stays true to its genre, so it's all about the gloom and the murk and the angst of impending death, instead of the thrills and the gore. We spend the bulk of the running time getting to know the cast of characters and untangling their mysteries, only checking in with the larger ongoing plot when its' absolutely necessary. From a writing standpoint, the series is cluttered, meandering, frequently lays on too much exposition, and drags its heels. It only occasionally bothers to be scary or sensual. Two episodes are almost completely composed of flashbacks, and stop the series dead in its tracks. However, it excels at its character studies and manages to pull off some very effective twists on the old stories. I was so gratified to find a piece of media that actually finds a new, fascinating angle on the "Dracula" story, and I'm interested to see what the creators have in store for some of the others.
For those who enjoy some eye candy, "Penny Dreadful" is a wonderful thing to look at, with high production values, a keen attention to historical details (though it mucks around with them for its own ends), and a wonderful sense of tragedy. Though it isn't always successful, the focus on the psychological and emotional lives of these characters makes their gloomy world so much more inviting. Maybe I've been watching too many of their slick action move reboots lately, but it's nice to see Frankenstein and the Wolf Man actually living out their haunted, miserable lives between the inevitable bouts of carnage. The restraint is so refreshing. It was a few episodes and a few sex scenes before a remembered that I was watching a Showtime show, which is notorious for shoehorning erotica into places where it doesn't really fit. "Penny Dreadful" doesn't have that problem.
The biggest problem it does have is one that I already know will carry through to the end of the show's short run. It's has a lot of ideas and not enough time to fully explore all of them. After the first season ended, I was surprised at how little narrative ground the series had actually covered, especially with the Frankenstein segments. With only nineteen episodes to go, I'm not expecting a very satisfying finale. However, I like these characters and their universe so much, I'm willing to see it out with them.