Saturday, October 29, 2016

"Penny Dreadful," Year Two

Minor spoilers ahead.

Well, I'm completely won over now. Going back over my write-up of the first season, I don't think I got across how unusually high-end the production of "Penny Dreadful" is. As an example, this year there's a throwaway scene in one of the early episodes where two characters visit a Victorian table tennis parlor, which is filled with period extras and historically accurate fixtures and props. The scene could have taken place anywhere - a shop or bar or restaurant we've already seen, perhaps, but instead the creators went to extraordinary lengths to show audiences something new and unique for less than five minutes of screen time. That's the way I feel about "Penny Dreadful's second season as a whole. Everyone involved really goes the extra mile to make the show something special.

At the outset, I expected "Penny Dreadful" to be a quasi-anthology show, but it has settled into being the story of Vanessa Ives, with everyone else playing distinctly secondary parts. And this is not a bad thing, as Eva Green continues to be scene chewer extraordinaire, and by far the most interesting character in the show's catalogue of monsters. This year, the war for her soul escalates with the introduction of a coven of witches, lead by the vicious Mrs. Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory), as the season's major villains. They not only attack Vanessa, but her allies. Mrs. Poole sets amorous designs on Sir Malcolm, and her daughter Hecate (Sarah Greene) targets Ethan Chandler. Ethan is one of several characters much improved this season, as he and Vanessa slowly circle each other romantically, and we get more insight on the particulars of his curse.

The other big winner is Brona, renamed Lily, who is now at the center of the Frankenstein plot, After a wonderful slow burn, Billie Piper just takes that role and blows it up into something unexpectedly horrific and magnificent. I wasn't sold on Rory Kinnear's Creature last year, now renamed John Clare, but he gets some more interesting material and scene partners this time around. There are also a wealth of minor characters who frequently steal the spotlight. Sir Malcolm's African manservant Sembene (Danny Sapani) and the foppish linguistics expert Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) were among my favorites. Lyle in particular is a great source of comic relief The third episode of the season is a flashback to Vanessa's tutelage in magic by a witch played by Patti LuPone. LuPone only appears in that single episode, but she leaves such a strong impact that it can be felt throughout the rest of the year.

Sadly, the show does have some significant weak spots. The biggest is Reeve Carney's Dorian Gray, who spends most of the season with a new love interest, Angelique (J. Beauchamp). Their story feels completely divorced from anything else going on in the rest of the series, and frankly the two actors are not strong enough to hold my interest. Most of the sequences with the witches also frequently teetered on the edge of absurdity. I love the look of them - in battle the witches appear as hairless, scarred demonic creatures - but they get very little character development. Frankly, most of the material of "Penny Dreadful" would be pulpy, risible stuff in other hands. There are literal talking dolls, bloody cloudbusts, and a werewolf who doesn't look right at all. But with writing and performances and lavish production values this good, it's easy to ignore a few flaws. The series rarely feels indulgent, and somehow doesn't come across as a guilty pleasure like 99% of horror-themed television.

And here I have to correct my previous mistake of not singling out the show's creator and main writer, John Logan, for praise. It's obvious how much he loves this universe, and how much effort he's put into breathing life into the characters. I love that he incorporates literature and poetry references everywhere. I love that he puts some progressive twists on familiar characters, even though they don't all work. I love that he tackles religious themes head on. And I know he's trying to do his best, which is why I'm going ahead and watching the third season of "Penny Dreadful," even though I've been forewarned that it's not going to be a satisfying finale.

If the rest of the show manages to maintain even a semblance of the same quality, it'll be worth another nine episodes to find out for myself.

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