Summer 2014 Review: Penny Dreadful

12 May

Penny DreadfulHey! It’s May! I’m starting to classify us as…drum roll please…officially in the SUMMER 2014 TV SEASON. And there’s no better way to kick it off than with a grim gothic horror series set in Victorian England! Let’s do this thing.

More so than most pilots, Penny Dreadful is dreadfully hard to get a sense of in one episode, leaving a lot of its premise to be yet assembled in future episodes. The show seems promising, but will probably require another episode or two viewed to know for sure because of how little we actually get in this episode.  I’m interested in watching more, but more hesitant to anoint it as a must-see pilot, or to be too excited about the upcoming season, because I need a few more bites to really get a better sense of it.

Here’s what we do get though. Penny Dreadful has what seems like a League of Extraordinary Gentleman-like set up. If you’re unfamiliar with that excellent comic book and fairly putrid movie adaptation, it’s basically a cobbling together of a bunch of Victorian england-era literary all-star characters all together into a gritty real life world.

Josh Hartnett, long absent from film and television, plays the American showman and gunsmith Ethan Chandler, new to England, and one of the only major characters not in some way lifted from literature. He’s doing Buffalo Bill-style wild west shooting shows, half showmanship and half marksmanship displays. He’s an inveterate drinker and womanizer, enjoying the show business lifestyle when he’s recruited by Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives to assist her with a dangerous task that will require his quick trigger finger.

Ives seems to have some connection to the supernatural, and she does a bunch of time creepily quasi-praying a weird creepy church with an upside down satanic church. So too does Timothy Dalton’s Max Murray; his daughter was taken away by vampires, and the two of them bring Chandler along to infiltrate a nest. The vampires are not the sexy vampires of True Blood and The Vampire Diaries; instead, they’re disgusting, and creepy, more reminiscent of Walking Dead zombies and some points. They’re scary; a reminder that original vampires were supposed to be terrifying and not cool. When they kill one and bring back its corpse, they recruit occult doctor Victor Frankenstein to take a look. Later, we see him bringing his eponymous monster to life.

Penny Dreadful is intriguing but feels incomplete. The gothic horror sensibility which reminds me of what made the League comic work as well; a sense of the supernatural, but rooted in its place and time in a meaningful way. Combining a period piece and the supernatural seems like an obvious gambit, considering what’s popular on television at the moment, but it could easily go very wrong, and has in the past (see, unfortunately, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film), and it’s to Penny Dreadful’s credit that both of those two key genre elements feel fully formed and not out of place.

The mood is right; it’s weird and eerie rather than romantic. As mentioned above the vampires don’t look sexy, they look creepy as all hell. Frankenstein seems largely off his rocker, and Vanessa Ives is engaging in creep-tastic behavior with spiders and potential satanic worship for much of her screen time.. Josh Hartnett’s American is the viewer’s stand in, not coincidentally as the only American on an American-made show set in England. He’s us, with no accent, with our sense of exaggerating nation-making myth, and bluster and braggadocio above actually experience. He talks a big game but he lives in the world of  show business and illusion, and has never been exposed to the unreal. And like all good Americans, he’s repulsed, creeped out, kind of terrified, but also curious, and insistent upon knowing more just to prove that he can.

What the hell is going on? Where is this going? I have absolutely no idea. Unlike The Returned, the landmark recent show for me in terms of I-have-no-idea-where-this-is-going after the pilot, I feel like I know the genre and the mood, both of which were very up for grabs throughout almost The Returned’s entire first season. Rather, it’s the basic plot arc in question, as well as the characters and they’re relationship to the stories on which they’re based.

Do the characters work? I’m not sure. Does the plot make sense, and does it matter? I don’t know. But, it passes the pilot test of having at least one quality that makes it stand out and calls for another episode. The mood works.

 

Will I watch it again? Yes, I wll. I’m not sure it’s going to be good, and I feel like I know less from one episode than I do from most shows, but there’s at least a halfway decent chance it wil

l be good, and that’s more than enough reason to watch a second episode.

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