Sunday, July 31, 2016

Penny Dreadful: Season 1

The term "Penny Dreadful" comes from a specific type of literature produced in Great Britain during the 19th century. A penny dreadful was the cheap pulp fiction of its day, loaded with scandalous material: lurid murders, graphic violence, deranged killers, and supernatural beings. Scandalous and cheap, they were often in weekly serials that cost a penny each, hence the name.

So it's fitting that Showtime's supernatural, gothic horror drama set in Victorian London would be called Penny Dreadful. Created by John Logan, the show comes packed with all the lurid sensationalism its titled promise: bloody deaths, gory murders, inhuman monsters that would tear society apart, repressed passion leading to violent outbursts, whispers of the Devil's influence, corruption of the innocent, sexual deviance, buried secrets coming home to roost.

Curiously, unlike its namesake genre, Penny Dreadful the show can also be described as a handsome, classy production, one made with careful skill and talent. The combination of lovingly recreated period details, first-class performances, and scenes of blood, shock, and yes, dread make for a show at turns riveting, tragic, and thrilling. It's a bloody show, containing its fair share of depravity and gore, but the quality of the writing, acting, and directing elevate it to an artistic level beyond its literary inspirations.

London 1891, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), an American performer in a traveling Wild West Show, is recruited by the mysterious Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and nobleman/explorer Sir Malcom Murray (Timothy Dalton) for a job making use of his gunfighting skills. Murray's daughter Mina (Olivia Llewellyn), who was a childhood friend of Vanessa, has been abducted, and so Chandler begins his descent into the London's supernatural underworld.

Of course, Dracula fans will recognize the name Mina Murray. Also turning up to assist our main characters is Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), who is toiling away in his private lab to create life. Vanessa also meets and becomes infatuated with Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), a charismatic hedonist with a love of portraits. The plot resembles, in concept, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in the way it unites several classic characters

Penny Dreadful is a busy show, loaded with subplots, flashbacks, and a few unexpected twists. Even if you're familiar with some of these characters in their original sources, don't expect to know what's going to happen because the show tinkers with some of the details. Sometimes the show feels like it's moving too slow, but the richness of the characters keeps it rewarding even when it feels like things are going off track. I particularly liked how Frankenstein's first creation (Rory Kinnear) gets a job as a stagehand at the Grand Guignol theatre; it's a nice touch that the owner of the theatre (Alun Armstrong) is probably the nicest and most jovial character. Also, keep your eyes peeled for David Warner in an all-too small part as Frankenstein's mentor, Dr. Abraham van Helsing.

There are several creepy moments, such as the group's descent into the basement of an opium lair where the vampires lurk; the place is overflowing with dead, mutilated bodies. Other moments are heartbreaking, like when Frankenstein's monster is driven to despair and wishes he had never been brought to life, and for the first time, the doctor feels pity toward his creation. Other moments are weird, like when Dorian Gray has sex with a prostitute (Billie Piper), even though she has tuberculosis and coughs up blood on him; he seems to like it. The prostitute, Brona Croft, becomes quite important to the plot because Chandler falls in love with her, and later, Dr. Frankenstein gets an idea when his monster demands a mate. There's also a seance at a society ball as well as an exorcism, and both of which are freaky, but more importantly, buried secrets are revealed during them.

Just about every character in the series has something from their past they wish would stay buried, but the past will not remain silent. It comes out in horrifying ways. Old shames, guilt, and regret have a way of manifesting and in some ways literally biting back. Creatures of all sorts turn up, including vampires, reanimated corpses, demonic entities, spirits of the dead, and a few other surprises. Each of the main characters carries with them a burden that comes to be represented by something supernatural.

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