If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It: Review of Showtime's Penny Dreadful

pen·ny dread·ful
a cheap, sensational comic or storybook.

Showtime's new vehicle, Penny Dreadful, premiered on May 11 with the episode "Night Work" and I decided to watch it on a whim. I was tired of marking ninth grade English essays and I needed something to take the edge off the multitude of missed vocabulary usage opportunities. I had fun playing "spot the literary reference," as the cast is rounded out by a plethora of public domain Victorian Gothic characters. The pilot episode does not disappoint -- by the end of the first hour we have met our Allan Quartermain type (from King Solomon's Mines, a Sir Malcolm Murray, father of Mina Murray who most Dracula afficionados know as Mina Harker), Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and Vanessa Ives, a spiritualist. Our "in," so to speak, is Ethan Chandler -- our brooding protagonist with a murky back story.

Perusing the show's website already gives away more than is needed: "Some of literature's most terrifying characters, including Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, and iconic figures from the novel Dracula are lurking in the darkest corners of Victorian London. PENNY DREADFUL is a frightening psychological thriller that weaves together these classic horror origin stories into a new adult drama."

We have already seen these characters on the small and silver screen -- collectively, probably the most recent manifestation would be the deliciously cheesy The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. We have also already seen the plot before - duo needs a third to make their trio complete. Cue the search for missing girl. Cue more questions than answers. I found myself feeling like I had seen this show before.

What was pleasantly surprising was the fact that my expectations were played up -- if I thought I was in for a "penny dreadful" I was going to get the Penny Dreadful. There was gore, dialogue that screamed exposition, and enough camera cue tip offs that I was constantly looking over character's shoulders.

As far as performances go, Eva Green is mesmerizing (as always) as Vanessa Ives. Timothy Dalton turns in a performance that could go either way -- he does a fine job of walking the line between campy and compelling. Harry Treadaway as Dr. Victor Frankenstein is riveting in a scene wherein his monster is revealed. I could not take my eyes off him and the tension between Frankenstein and the "monster" was palpable. Josh Hartnett was my only caveat as his performance as the audience insert seemed a bit off kilter. However, this may be a quirk of the character himself, as by the end of episode two "Seance," more back story is revealed.

"Seance" included just that -- a nod to the Victorian fin de siècle fascination with the supernatural and the occult with Ives and Murray getting more than they bargained for. Green uses her striking features to full advantage and I admit even I was unsettled watching the seance scene. We learn more about the mysterious origins of the creature that has brought Ives, Murray, Frankenstein, and Chandler together. Just when we are thinking there's almost too many characters, they toss more in. Reeve Carney's Dorian Gray (yes, he of the failed Spiderman musical) puts in an appearance at the seance, held at the Egyptologist's manor. Whovians will recognize Companion Billie Piper as Brona Croft, a New Woman with a -- get ready for it -- mysterious past and consumption.  We also get to see the maturation of Frankenstein's monster and by the end of the episode I was agape. Completely flabbergasted. However, it was in the most positive way possible. Having some background knowledge of Gothic and Victorian fiction, I felt like there wasn't much more they could throw at me which would seem "new." By the end of "Seance," I had completely changed my opinion.

My Verdict:  In an exchange of banter, Chandler asks Ives if she has issued him a warning -- Ives replies, "It's an invitation." I also issue you an invitation to give Penny Dreadful a try. I give it a solid B+ with enormous potential.


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