The past few years of horror’s televised resurgence have given us the tension-stuffed realism of NBC’s Hannibal and the absurdist camp of FX’s American Horror Story, with a nice smattering of styles in between. After watching the first two episodes of Showtime’s gothic literary mash-up Penny Dreadful, I’m nearly convinced that this is the best of the bunch, or at least the most competently created. It doesn’t sound likely that a series featuring a character licking the consumption-laced blood off of another character’s lip can be labeled as “mature,” but there’s no denying the sophisticated touch present on every level of this monstrous high-concept mystery thriller.
Let’s shed immediate light on what makes this dark series so compelling. Penny Dreadful has an esteemed creator and screenwriter in John Logan, the Academy Award-nominated writer of The Aviator, Hugo and Skyfall; the latter film’s director, Sam Mendes, teamed with Logan on executive producer duties. As well, the first two episodes were directed by J.A. Bayona, who gave the world some truly horrifying imagery in both 2007’s The Orphanage and 2012’s The Impossible, and his visual grace in this series is just as engaging as the story itself.
Penny Dreadful is an ensemble drama with several stories happening at once, all tethered together by a Victorian London setting that has seen a rash of murders whose culprit has yet to be identified. (Here’s a hint: it’s at least one vampire.) One part of the story centers on world-renowned explorer Sir Malcolm Montgomery (Timothy Dalton), who, along with his trusted (and underused) manservant Sembene (Danny Sapani), is on the hunt for his missing daughter. For this task, Sir Malcolm works with Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a card reading sorta-psychic who is slowly falling victim to demons trying to take over her soul, or something like that. The second episode features a séance that completely opens up both of these characters’ stories, as we see that Vanessa’s otherworldly ties are far-reaching, and that Sir Malcolm’s relationship with his daughter may be drowning in filthy secrets.
Josh Hartnett, in his most naturally entertaining role in years, plays Ethan Chandler, an American sharpshooter whose European “tour” is cut short once he gets involved with Sir Malcolm and Vanessa’s endeavors. After a vicious run-in with some fanged creatures, they take one’s corpse to the genius introvert Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), who discovers the body has some rather revealing hieroglyphs all over its body. This introduces us to side character Ferdinan Lyle, an Egyptologist played with over-the-top aplomb by English actor Simon Russell Beale.
Victor’s story goes places where you expect it to: he works in a morgue, which gives him access to body parts used to create the Creature of legend, played with sincerity by Rory Kinnear, whose role is expanded in the second episode as he’s introduced to the outside world. But Victor’s story also takes a hard right turn when you least expect it, and that’s best experienced with a clear head.
Episode 2 also brings our final two leads into the fold. The Irish immigrant Brona Croft (Billie Piper) strikes up a friendly relationship with Ethan over a mutual respect for booze, and later enters a more carnal friendship with the youthful Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), whom we don’t know too much about just yet. Well, we know he absolutely loves portraits – a nod to Oscar Wilde’s novel – and doesn’t mind having bloodied sex in front of his photographer. He also manages to woo Vanessa, which means he’ll probably be a season-long lothario whose random insertions eventually get him into trouble.
As far as I’m concerned, everything works here. The acting is borderline superb, with Green owning the more ridiculously devilish moments, and Piper embodying this sassy character that could easily exist in the real world today, just without that corset. On top of that, Bayona keeps the camera exactly where it needs to be at all times, and the seemingly ever-present darkness is almost as much of a character as anything living (or unliving, as it were). I usually hate when people personify cities as unofficial movie cast members, but I’m creating my own exception here; this show would only be half as effective without the shadowy atmosphere.
At only eight episodes, Penny Dreadful’s initial season may feel too brief to consider for TV supremacy, but if the next six episodes are equally as narratively driven, then Showtime may have stumbled upon its greatest creation yet. And it didn’t have to sew any skin together in order to do it. If I had to toss out any instant regrets, it would be that Penny Dreadful wasn’t produced by Netflix or Amazon, and is thus unavailable for binging. Therein lies the true horror.
Catch the first episode, “Night Work,” when it premieres on Showtime this Sunday, May 11. Additionally, you can watch it on YouTube here.