The title of Showtime’s new horror fantasy series ‘Penny Dreadful’ practically begs for a snarky pun at its expense, doesn’t it? Fortunately, I’m relieved to report that the show isn’t dreadful at all. It’s actually pretty fun.
For those unaware of its etymology, the phrase “penny dreadful” refers to the genre of lurid serialized pulp literature popular in 19th Century England. The Showtime series is set in that era, specifically in 1891 London, and mashes together various pop culture iconography such as vampires, Egyptian curses, ‘Frankenstein’ and Jack the Ripper, no doubt among other things to come, in much the same way as Alan Moore’s ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ comic (and the godawful movie adaptation) did.
Oddly, the show also represents a weird cross-section of people formerly associated with the James Bond franchise, albeit from unrelated movies. ‘Skyfall’ screenwriter John Logan created the program, which stars Timothy Dalton (‘The Living Daylights’, ‘Licence to Kill’) and Eva Green (‘Casino Royale’). Is that just a coincidence, or is there some network of 007 contributors? I have no idea.
Dalton plays Sir Malcolm, an old-school adventurer in the Allan Quatermain mold. Green is his companion Vanessa Ives, a tarot reader and spiritualist of some ambiguous nature. In the pilot episode, called ‘Night Work’, they recruit American showman Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) – an ace sharpshooter and bullshit artist currently fronting a bogus Wild West show – to assist them as bodyguard and muscle on a mission into the city’s shadowy, supernatural underworld. Malcolm is searching for his daughter, who was kidnapped by… something nasty. At their first stop, they encounter vampires, and a humanoid monster with a hard exoskeleton and sharp teeth.
They manage to kill the monster and bring him to a young anatomist working among a coterie of “Resurrection Men,” who slices the body open and finds Egyptian hieroglyphics inscribed inside, under the skin. That clue will certainly be revisited later. At the end of this episode, we’ll learn that the anatomist is none other than Victor Frankenstein. As he toils at cobbling together a monster of his own from mismatched body parts, lightning strikes his lab, animating the creature, which as of yet just looks more confused than frightful.
Obviously inspired by the success of FX’s ‘American Horror Story’, the series is atmospheric, creepy and intriguing, with an elaborate mythology and plenty of over-the-top violence and gore. Since it’s on premium cable, it has the benefit of adding full-frontal nudity (mostly male so far, though Eva Green has never been shy about disrobing in other movies she’s made). The performances are mostly very good (yes, even Hartnett), with the exception of an eccentric antiquities expert who’s operating on another level of cartoonishness from everything around him. That guy needs to be reined in.
However, the pilot episode feels very rushed, and never quite evokes the sense of giddy, transgressive glee that ‘American Horror Story’ traffics in – as much as it may want to. Hopefully, that’s something that can improve as the show finds its footing.
I’m in. ‘Penny Dreadful’ has already scored a series recording on my DVR. I look forward to seeing where this goes.