When Marcey asked me to do a weekly coverage of Showtime’s brand new thriller/horror offering aptly named “Penny Dreadful” saying it was right up my dark alley, I knew I had to do some reading on it and what can I say? “Penny Dreadful” is what I am all ABOUT my friends!
Taking place in an alternative Victorian England, “Penny Dreadful” derives it’s name from a curious species of 19th century cheap British fiction publication with lurid and sensational subject matter. Think of it as period exploitation. Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is a gifted and troubled American sharpshooter who comes to the UK where he quickly runs afoul upon Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), consumptive prostitute Brona Croft (Billie Piper) and Sir Malcolm Murray an adventurer who is searching for his missing daughter. It isn’t too long before Chandler finds not all is as it seems in this country, considering it also happens to harbor monsters of the living and the dead…
As one would come to expect from Showtime, “Penny Dreadful” makes no bones that this series is going to be bloody. The first sequence involves a woman getting up in the wee hours of the morning to TAKE a wee, completely vulnerable and exposed before she meets a terrible fate. From what I have gleaned from the pilot, this show is going to revel in setting up surprises for the viewer along the way although I hope it will not be done for the sake of shock value. The cast thus far is looking strong, with Green being a standout. Given she was perhaps the only saving grace of “300 Rise of an Empire”, she has already proven she isn’t a one trick pony in terms of being a compelling actor. Her Vanessa Ives is a composed and focused individual who isn’t at all afraid to face the demons of the dark or of the depth of the soul. Given the character has strong psychic abilities, she has an understanding about the world that the rest of us choose to ignore or simply know nothing about.
Hartnett (in what seems like an age) returns to the mainstream domain and plays his role understated- considering Chandler is a foreigner, he is very much feeling like a fish out of water. Billie Piper is immediately sympathetic as Brona- while Vanessa is a member of the rich class, Brona is at the very bottom rung- forced to live in squalor, filled with doubts as to whether or not she will be able to have a meal every night or have a building to sleep in. As always it is a pleasure to see Timothy Dalton sink his Welshie teeth into a role with relish and I feel his upper-crust explorer role is one of his most entertaining in recent years (as good as his character in “Hot Fuzz”? We’ll see, but I won’t play favourites in that regard). There is a danger and a nobility to him that he can pull off with ease to spare, though that is presumably due to the fact he was James Bond a couple of decades prior.
(Small note: as you have most likely noticed, the main players share a few things in common- Green and Dalton have been in 007 films, Piper who was at one point interested in playing a Bond Woman was in “Doctor Who” as a regular which Dalton himself guest-starred. In fact at one point, Green’s character makes a very snappy and clever reference to the franchise she was a part of that will no doubt make those with a wry sense of humor smirk and nod.)
So what of the story itself? Well, thus far we have only met some of the principle characters to put the story in motion, but it quickly establishes that this is a world that is populated by the forces of darkness- demonic entities, creepers, vampires, beasts, immortals and perhaps most intriguingly Jack The Ripper (which directly appeals to my inner Ripperologist) but for now, there is not much that I can reveal partly because not much has been shown and the fact it would be a crime for me to spoil you. A lot of you already know that “Penny Dreadful” includes creatures from actual real life literature such as Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster (and daddy), Dorian Gray and numerous other oddities. Now THAT is something fabulous! This is the type of series that will most likely polarize it’s viewers due to the very heady content that will inevitably become apparent. For one thing, the cursing, bloodshed and Gothic tomfoolery is hardly the shy and retiring type. Given the Victorian setting, there is an inherent sense of rancidity emanating from every environment which speaks volumes about the show’s incredible and detailed production design. This show has a meaty budget and I can tell it’s gonna milk it for all it’s worth- it would be a crime to do otherwise!
Do I have any concerns? A few.
* While I am okay with sex, violence, hard language and unpleasant doings in film or literature, I prefer it all to have context and reason. While I don’t feel “Penny Dreadful” will become an actual penny dreadful for the small screen, I just hope it doesn’t rely solely on cheap thrills and too many bombastic story points to juggle.
* Story-telling. While each episode is an hour long, I do hope there will be a strong sense of narrative cohesion through the show as opposed to NBC’s “Dracula” which tried to do too much all at once. When you eat a multiple-course meal, you don’t offer it all up at once, you need to pace yourself in between dishes.
* Character development. Again, I fully appreciate there is only so much character-based work that can be placed into a 60 minute show, but all of these characters have a lot of individual potential. So far it seems Vanessa is the focus (which is nice!) but I am hopeful Hartnett, Piper and Dalton among the others will be given their own source to shine.
In closing, I have very, very high hopes for “Penny Dreadful”. I already have a massive partiality to the series which sounds completely ridiculous, but how often is it that we are given a unique source material that doesn’t revolve around lumbering slashers, screaming bimbos, sparkling vampires and no-balled werewolves? I sincerely hope this series will have a respectable run and help shift the paradigm of horror, if only slightly… though perhaps that’s a little too much to ask, but I wouldn’t dispute it if it did!