We’ll do the monster mash…
Main Cast: Eva Green, Josh Hartnett
Creator: John Logan
Total Seasons: 3
First…a definition. What is a Penny Dreadful? According to Wikipedia, it is “cheap popular serial literature produced during the nineteenth century in the United Kingdom.” And that, my friends, is where one might find stories about the creatures that populate the three seasons of Showtime’s gothic horror series Penny Dreadful.
True to its name, Penny Dreadful is lurid and sensational. It is not, however, cheap – in any fashion. Set amidst the reeking filth of Victorian London, the series pulls together an assortment of literary characters suitable for any number of nightmares. Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll, and more have their stories tweaked and meshed into a tale of good and evil, and more evil, and then an extra added dash of evil. Of the main characters, Dr. Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) seem to be made from whole cloth. Added to their core is Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), who as we know has some side hobbies. The four begin the first season in search of Dr. Murray’s missing daughter – Mina Harker (name ring a bell, Bram Stoker fans?). Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) shows up shortly after, stirring a touch of glamour and debauchery into the proceedings.
So the concept is simple and utterly complex. Take a group of fictional characters, both from literary history and originals for the show, and mash up their stories and mythos into a watchable whole. Easier said than done, unless you’re series creator John Logan, in which case you manage to cook up some devilish magic with your disparate ingredients. Each of the three seasons focuses on one main theme – or struggle – while all of the characters are also involved in continuing subplots in which they are developed and their stories revealed. The series concludes, very satisfyingly, at the end of season three.
So why should you watch Penny Dreadful? There are so, so many reasons. But there are three that stand out from all the others. First, the setting. It is brilliant in its combination of ugliness and raw beauty. The entire field of special effects might as well have been created for just such a purpose as this. The streets of London are at turns foul and enchanting, the drafty castles are imposing and cold, the waterways clogged with boats spewing pollution into the already fetid air. When on occasion we travel outside of the city, the transformation feels like exiting a smoke filled back alley saloon for a walk in the purest air on Earth.
Next up, the writing. Penned by John Logan, Andrew Hinderaker and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, the scripts are filled with verbal acrobatics laced with poetry and a vaguely Shakespearean cadence that results in every conversation feeling as if it’s laden with hidden meaning. It’s lovely, but know that it takes a little getting used to – give yourself an episode or two to become accustomed to the distinctly literary feel of the dialogue. Logan and crew also take advantage of the literary characters whose stories they fit into their world. The essential natures of Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Gray and others – natures with which most of you are probably at least passingly familiar – fit beautifully within the greater narrative. You don’t need to know a thing about any of the literary figures – all is explained – but it is fun to catch some of the more obscure tidbits that get included.
Third, the performances. And this is where it’s really all at, isn’t it? This ensemble cast gets stronger with each episode, texturing its characters, making them both infuriating and entirely sympathetic. None is a pure hero, a pure victim, a pure antagonist. They all have elements of good and evil, it’s up to the viewer to follow along as they figure out which is going to define them.
Eva Green is the strongest in terms of both character and performance. She really is the lead in the series. Her Vanessa is at turns tortured, petulant, and steadfastly strong. Josh Hartnett, an actor who has never impressed me before, turns in a fantastic performance as an increasingly complex American gunslinger with a lot of secrets. Timothy Dalton is also terrific as the (at least honorary) head of the group, and the one best at delivering his lines with a little twinkle in his eye as he enjoys the delicious excesses of his character and the series situations.
Honorable mention goes to Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray and Rory Kinnear as Frankenstein’s monster. Both bring far more to both their characters and the program than seems possible at the outset.
Make no mistake – Penny Dreadful is horror. It’s filled with nasty gore and fiery sex and scattered with bad language. If those things make you squirm, stay far away. But if you like horror, or have any affinity at all for the time period or the literature used as the series foundation, definitely give it a watch. I would have binge watched it all were it not for my far more moderate and patient husband – and he was probably right. It’s pretty grimy and gritty and extravagantly over the top – it might get to be too much if you watch more than a couple episodes in a row. It’s currently streaming on Netflix, but it’s tempting to want to buy the DVDs just to see the special features. Highly recommended.