Small-screen horror has been experiencing a boom in the past few years, with the continued survival of quality programs like NBC’s Hannibal and AMC’s The Walking Dead. Surprisingly, basic cable networks beat premium ones to the punch in terms of ordering up legitimately scary shows, unless you count HBO’s True Blood (and I certainly wouldn’t). Now, Showtime is jumping into the ring with Penny Dreadful, an old-school creature feature set in an alt-history 19th-century London populated by some of literature’s most feared creations.
The show’s title alone, lifted from the cheap British paperbacks that beguiled readers with sensational subject matter, is a good indicator for what audiences should expect. Writer/creator John Logan (Skyfall) doesn’t expect Penny Dreadful to be taken as a gritty drama of the highest order. He’s aiming for something lower-brow and, dare I say, a lot more fun. In the first episode alone, we meet an obsessive scientist by the name of Victor Frankenstein, a host of vampiric creatures and a mysterious monster capable of (quite literally) ripping people to shreds. And despite the eerie setting and abundance of creepy visuals, there’s a clear merriment to the proceedings that should make Penny Dreadful quite a treat for horror fans.
As the pilot, titled “Night Work,” opens, director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) quickly establishes an impressively absorbing atmosphere, filled with dark shadows and sinister secrets. The guy has experience with conjuring up creepy locales, and Penny Dreadful‘s home with Showtime means that he’s working with a feature film budget – which, to be clear, is a wonderful thing. The show’s Victorian setting is quite striking and does a lot to sell Penny Dreadful‘s more lurid aspects.
“Night Work” has a lot of work to do, introducing a handful of characters and setting up the eight-episode first season’s main plotlines. That it never feels exhausting as it gets the wheels turning is a tribute to Bayona’s slick camerawork and Logan’s tight writing. First, we meet Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) as she furiously whispers prayers to a Jesus statue, only to find her place of worship overrun by spiders. There’s clearly something wrong with Vanessa, but that’s a mystery for probably much further down the line. Quickly in the next scene, she’s regained her composure and is watching an American sharpshooter named Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) enrapture audiences as part of a traveling circus. Judging by the sly smile on her face, she likes what she sees.Next
Soon enough, Vanessa has enlisted Ethan to help her and her aristocratic acquaintance Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) with a nighttime excursion. Before you can spell “Nosferatu,” the trio are fending off a group of angry bloodsuckers in the dark catacombs of London. Their motivation for engaging such fearsome creatures? Murray’s daughter has been abducted for unknown purposes, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get her back. Though Ethan has his suspicions, it’s immediately clear that he’s intrigued by the prospect of a supernatural London hidden right before his eyes (Vanessa calls it the “Demimonde”).
Aside from following Murray’s quest to rescue his daughter, Penny Dreadful also introduces Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), who leaves a strong impression as as a brilliant, if arrogant, scientist. Though there’s a possibility that future episodes will simply treat Frankenstein as the Dr. Rodgers to Vanessa and Malcolm’s Benson and Stabler, the conclusion of “Night Work” teases a strong standalone plot for him, so I’m hopeful that Logan will take the time to grow him as a character independent of the main trio.
That said, it’ll be understandable if Logan simply doesn’t have room to put Frankenstein in the spotlight for long – he wisely holds back on introducing Billie Piper’s Brona Croft and Reeve Carney’s Dorian Gray in the first episode, but giving seven or eight main characters enough time to develop in just eight episodes will likely pose a significant challenge for Penny Dreadful.
As a pilot, “Night Work” is pretty effective, though it’s not flawless. Bayona directs the action scenes with a manic intensity that noticeably clashes with the grim atmosphere. Ethan almost takes a backseat in the episode’s less thrilling second half, and Hartnett’s charismatic turn makes me hope that situation is only temporary. Vanessa, on the other hand, has the potential to become frustrating if her character stays icy and remote for long; at least for now, Green is strong enough to hold the screen even when Vanessa’s dialogue is borderline baffling.
There’s a lot still unclear about the specifics of Vanessa and Malcolm’s involvement with this Demimonde, but that’s all part of the fun. The audience, like Ethan, are thrown headfirst into a version of London that’s at once familiar and fascinatingly alien. I’m really looking forward to exploring that world - whether it succeeds or fails as a series, Penny Dreadful will at least certainly never be dull.Previous