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“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.”
Reading Showtime’s description of Penny Dreadful, it was hard not to imagine it becoming a full on cheese-fest. I mean, when has this idea of combining iconic characters from disparate stories in a singular universe ever truly worked out for a film or television show? Did we forget about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Haven’t we learned from the mess that has become of Once Upon A Time? (To be honest that series never really worked for me, even in its initial stages.) It is an ambitious premise to tackle, people have such specific and personal attachments to certain characters that it is a difficult task for them to view, say Dr. Frankenstein or Dracula, as anything else but their own idea/interpretation of what that character should be. Additionally, this seemed like Showtime’s lame attempt to cash in on the recent resurgence of the horror genre in television. With buzz-y shows like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story attracting larger audiences season after season, it makes sense that the cable network would want to follow in those lines. Then they go and cast Josh Hartnett in a leading role. I mean. Come. On.
However, upon watching the series premiere and subsequent episodes, I think many of us were surprised to find that Penny Dreadful was an absolute joy to watch. An often frightening, creepy, and over the top ridiculous joy that is. The recognizable characters fit into the world created, and the familiarity we had with them added a layer of knowing and meaning to the story being told. Creator and writer, John Logan, played with audience expectation at times giving us exactly what we expected from a character and other times completely catching us off guard. Unlike the aforementioned AHS, a show that is steeped in horror clichés and has crumbled under its own overstuffed narrative, there is a controlled focus to the story. There is no urgency to overextend the universe and the ensemble cast is employed effectively. Also, the show and its creators are totally aware of the kind of program it is, first and foremost a horror story; it lives in the land of horror tropes and clichés, but it isn’t trying to do much more than that. Sure, the narrative enjoys its thematic flourishes touching on ideas of humanity, good/evil, sexuality, and repression, among others, but it doesn’t ever become an overly ambitious endeavor. Plus, Josh Hartnett is actually kind of good. Huh.
In fact, the performances on the show are quite solid all around. Only a few of them felt like they needed work; Billie Piper is an able actress but her Irish accent was questionable at best, it got better towards the end of the season but she was mostly coughing up blood and bedridden in those final episodes; and Reeve Carney is not nearly as compelling or exciting as the ageless Dorian Gray is probably supposed to be. But, let’s face it, this is Eva Green’s show, she owns that role and commands the series as Vanessa Ives. What a great showcase for the French beauty. Such perfect casting, she has a haunting face, with her deep, hooded eyes and pale complexion, ideal for portraying the disturbed Vanessa. She can chew the scenery like no other, but always keeps it grounded; we never forget there is a person suffering through all this.
As a result, the most engaging narrative in the season was Vanessa’s journey and experiences. Green just sold every single moment, even in the lackluster penultimate episode “Possession”, and remained compelling to watch. The highlight of the season, the episode “Closer Than Sisters” focused on her past experiences with Mina and the Murray family. The hour takes her from a bright young girl to tormented and catatonic woman and eventually to the Vanessa we have come to know. It was a fascinating look into the characters’ backstories and it mostly works because of Green’s performance and commitment. Give that material to a less secure actor and watch it fall apart.
Narratively, the series took a simple approach and introduced a main conflict (that was resolved in the end) and then built supporting stories off of that central storyline. While the Mina dilemma was a straightforward conflict that communicated character agency and information and established a goal to work towards, it soon became the least interesting storyline in the show. Malcolm’s persistence and near sightedness to save his daughter grew tiresome, especially after people keep telling him it is likely a lost cause. The storyline almost stopped to a halt to make way for more interesting arcs, like Frankenstein’s. Regardless of the many times this particular story has been told and reinterpreted and disseminated through popular culture, Logan manages to create an effective Frankenstein story that echoes and nods to previous iterations, yet still resonates and engages. It help that these performances are also fun to watch. Even the bland Dorian Gray pulled focus from Malcolm’s pursuit.
The first half of the season is more successful than the later half, primarily because there is a quality of unexpectedness that comes with introducing a world and its characters. The feeling that almost anything could happen permeated those first few episodes, then it became clear that there was a lot of groundwork being laid and Logan was building a story that would conclude in a neat bow. Every narrative beat was pointed and noticeable so when we got to the finale, every character arc paid off exactly as one would think. Sure it made logical and narrative sense, and it was all ably constructed, but there was a serious lack of surprises. It a little bit too neat: Malcolm finally lets go of Mina and accepts that Vanessa is his family; Frankenstein is going to transform Brona into Caliban’s undead companion; Ethan Chandler is a werewolf (gasp)… These conclusions/reveals were so telegraphed that it takes away from the entertainment value. We all like to feel smart and hyper aware when we correctly predict major plot points, but when all the big moments in a season finale are this predictable it turns anticlimactic.
It’s not as if these developments are uninteresting or bad directions to take the story in. On the contrary, I’m looking forward to see what will happen when Frankenstein transforms Brona and the consequences of that. But we knew that would happen the moment the doctor laid eyes on the sickly Brona, and that’s fine too, but to have the show treat it like it is some huge revelation or shocker is bit insulting. Similarly, Ethan’s transformation was expected as it was hinted at numerous times, the moment itself was quite badass and fun to watch, but it didn’t have the impact that Logan intended. This is a series that had its fare share of shocking moments in its earlier episodes, you’d think they would save some or the big finale.
The anticlimactic finale, although entertaining and fun to watch, doesn’t have me counting down the days for its return, I’m perfectly fine waiting however many months for the second season. That said, the first season of Penny Dreadful was a surprisingly entertaining endeavor full of fantastic performances, pulpy action and grim imagery that make it one of the most successful horror series on television.
What did you think?