Sunday, May 11, 2014

In for a Pound: Showtime's Penny Dreadful

Josh Hartnett, Harry Treadaway, Eva Green and Timothy Dalton in Penny Dreadful (Photo by Jonathan Hession)

Named for the Victorian-era pulp novels that captured the attention of young British men with their vivid tales of true crime and gothic horror, Showtime's new series Penny Dreadful premieres tonight. The show is a co-production of Showtime with Britain's Sky Atlantic and will begin airing for UK audiences on May 20th. The period horror series boasts strong production values, a talented cast of actors, and some genuine literary ambition. And also, it need not be said, vampires. Lots and lots of vampires.

With three seasons of FX's American Horror Story under our belt and the second season of its poorer Netflix cousin Hemlock Grove premiering in a month,  I wouldn't have thought that the television landscape needed another self-described "psychosexual" horror series. And honestly for this sometimes weak-stomached viewer, two horror series have sometimes been two too many, with the current shows erring too much and too often on the side of exploitation for me to enjoy them regularly. To its credit, Penny Dreadful  for all its gothic pedigree and explicitness regarding blood and sex  has succeeded in telling a story which is both creepy and entertaining. Sensationalist without being lurid, literary without being self-conscious, Penny Dreadful is a blast.

Set in 1891 London (mainly in the city's East End, because where else would you want to be in late Victorian England?), Penny Dreadful is created and written by John Logan, the playwright-turned-screenwriter who has penned such diverse fare as RangoHugo and Gladiator, and who co-wrote Skyfall(Logan is also slated to write the next two James Bond films, with Dreadful executive producer Sam Mendes returning as director for both.) With Penny Dreadful, Logan reaches into the annals of British gothic fiction and reinvents some its most memorable personages. And alongside figures straight from the pages of Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker are some wholly original characters.

Timothy Dalton and Eva Green in Penny Dreadful
Comparisons of Alan Moore's now classic graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, whose first issues were published in 1999, are sure to dominate online conversation as the series' 8-episode first season airs, but if the first hour is any indication, the overlaps are mainly superficial. Beyond sharing the same basic conceit  a team up of some of the late 19th century's most iconic literary creations, including characters from Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) – Logan's universe is explicitly gothic to Moore's more steampunk sensibility, and far less expansive than the graphic novels, both in population and historical ambition. Moreover, while Moore's team, led by Sherlock's brother Mycroft Holmes, has the official backing of the British government, the Penny Dreadful gang is a much more ragtag affair. Ultimately, aside from both writers' playful use of public domain material, I don't anticipate the inevitable comparisons will compromise either the impact or originality of the television series. Penny Dreadful only reminded me of Moore's work long enough to regret that no-one even considered adapting the books for an ambitious television series, instead of the noisy, uneven feature film of 2003. Unfortunately,  the two stories are certainly similar enough to now keep that from happening for the near future.

Indeed, not to be outdone by the film adaptation of Extraordinary Gentlemen (which boasted Sean Connery as adventurer Allan Quatermain), Logan casts another former Bond, Timothy Dalton, for his adventurer Sir Malcolm Murray. Dalton's character is playing double narrative duty here, since he not only stands in for the Quartermain role, but because it is his obsessive search for his missing daughter – Wilhelmina, aka "Mina" Harker (née Murray) of Dracula fame  that brings our "heroes" together,  a team which includes a young Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and (eventually) an unnervingly beautiful gentleman by the name of Dorian Gray (portrayed by newcomer Reeve Carney). Still, for all the familiar names, the majority of the characters we have met so far are creations of Logan himself, even if they are recognizable genre types: the American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett, Black Hawk Down), the aging explorer Sir Malcolm, and Vanessa Ives (played by French actress and Bond film alum Eva Green), the alluring spiritualist with not a little of Sherlock Holmes in her.

Chandler comes on the scene as a performer in a touring "Buffalo Bill" Cody-style Wild West Show, playing up the Rough Rider shtick and shooting feathers off the hats of adoring young damsels. His gun prowess gets the attention of Ives, who draws Chandler into this dark demi-monde where dead things walk  "a half-world between what we know and fear, a place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt." Intrigued (mainly by Ives herself) but still sceptical, Chandler is the audience's stand-in as the full extent of this shadowy world unfolds in the show's first hour. Hartnett's Chandler, a man of "great violence and hidden depths",  no doubt has his own mysteries yet to be mined, but his American straight-talk ("Who the fuck are you people?") brings much needed groundedness to the proceedings.

Josh Hartnett and Eva Green in Penny Dreadful
Penny Dreadful is set in a world of oil lamps, opium dens, street waifs, gunslingers and bowler hats. In the end, it has far more in common with the BBC's Ripper Street than with The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Both series are set in the immediate aftermath of the Jack the Ripper slayings, a place and a time where the extent of our human capacity for evil was greatly expanded. For most of Dreadful's first hour, I half-expected Ripper Street's D.I. Reid and company to show up at a crime scene! But if the BBC series keeps its evil to a very earthly realm  and is often all the more disturbing because of it  Penny Dreadful jumps into the fantastic with both feet. (As a side note: Ripper Street was recently rescued by the "resurrection men" over at Amazon Instant Video, who brought the remarkable-but-low-rated series back to life after cancellation by its UK backers. Its third season is currently in production.)

Penny Dreadful is dark, not only thematically but visually, often set in a world of literal and not merely figurative shadows.  But the darkness, for all of its gloom, works especially well in light of the show's inevitable gore, tempering it and making it more often suggestive than exploitive. The literal bloodbath that our heroes stumble upon  a vampire nest with piles and piles of bloodied, disassembled corpses  which could have tipped the series into gross-out self-parody, instead has the nuanced look of a page from a graphic novel rather than a contemporary horror film.

Penny Dreadful  may be having fun with its monster mash-up conceit, and  even if some of the dialogue may tend towards melodramatic speechifying (with the idealistic young Dr. Frankenstein being a repeat offender), it is anything but camp in its delivery. There's a grotesqueness to Dreadful's monsters  its vampires are more beasts than men, a welcome corrective after a decade of Twilight's sparkling bloody-sucking heartthrobs  and a humanity to its characters that brings just enough existential reality to faithfully call to its literary origins. Though it may paint with broad strokes, Penny Dreadful is still capable of fine detail  and it all adds up to a right bloody adventure.

Penny Dreadful airs on Sundays at 10pm on Showtime in the US and The Movie Network in Canada. It will premiere on Sky for UK audiences on May 20th.

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on May 11, 2014. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.