Penny Dreadful (Showtime) Series Premiere Review “Night Work”

A Penny Dreadful is traditionally a work of sensational or pulp fiction. In other words, it is not supposed to be highbrow. The stories, which did indeed cost a penny, were meant to titillate, to send chills down the spine and appeal to our base senses. They were tales of horror, monsters and mayhem. Showtime’s Penny Dreadful lived up to its title in the premiere, “Night Work.” There was nothing particularly prestigious about the episode, it was perfectly happy to indulge in the pre-set horror tropes, and I was fine with that. The episode dripped with atmosphere and committed so fully to its theme, I never once stopped to consider how preposterous the setup was.

Our primary characters come from the pages of literature (or thereabouts), Sir Malcolm is in search of his daughter Mina– a name that Dracula fans should recognize –who was taken by a vampire due to something the cursed seer Vanessa Ives did or did not do. They quickly enlist American actor and gunslinger Ethan Chandler to join them in their search for the creature who took Mina. Along the way they also pick up a young Dr. Frankenstein whose curiosity gets the better of him. That is the bare bones of the plot, but Penny Dreadful is like a luscious Gothic novel where the proverbial devil is not in the details, but in the scenery.

The dirty, smog covered streets of 19th century London are rendered in such a dreary, haunted manner it is not surprising when we find vampires lurking in the back of opium dens, or a kooky Egyptologist feeding flesh-eating beetles with a human skull. The gore is nothing more fantastic than what is found in modern horror movies. After a woman is violently ripped from her home in the opener, the bodies of her and her children are found ripped apart and strewn around their residence by the police. The other residents jump to the conclusion that the Ripper is plaguing the East End once more, a reminder that real terror was never far from the minds of Londoners at the time. It is gross, yes, but not scary in a world where The Walking Dead and American Horror Story desensitize us to blood and guts on a weekly basis.

It is only in the small moments where Penny Dreadful evokes chills. Vanessa’s fervent prayers in Latin go unheeded only to call forth a single spider that crawls across her clasped hands and wiggles its front legs at her. Later her prayers bring forth hundreds of spiders and an upside down crucifix. Eva Green’s intensity level as Vanessa is off the charts. We don’t know what happened to her or why she is a part of this demi-monde others cannot see, but Green conveys the character’s pain and knowledge with the steely look in her eyes. It is no wonder that Ethan Chandler ultimately asks for a smile from her before he joins the train of horrors– as a viewer, I wanted to see beyond her unwavering stare, but even her smile seemed to cost her something.

As for Ethan, he is the typical snarky hero with a dark past type, but I love both snarky heroes with dark pasts and Josh Hartnett, so there was no need to make Ethan anything deeper. He will serve nicely as our everyman guide into the dark world and as the man who breaks through Vanessa’s defenses (he does choose The Lovers’ card, after all). Harry Treadaway’s Frankenstein was the episode’s most interesting character. His youthful dedication to his work revealed itself in a brusque manner that ultimately gave way to wonder when he accidentally brought forth his monster.

I don’t see Penny Dreadful joining the upper echelons of TV from its pilot, but it did feed my base desires for easy scares, Gothic settings and Josh Hartnett flipping his gorgeous locks. Then again, the real penny dreadfuls often had hidden depths. A story can be fun and meaningful– Penny Dreadful has the first part down, now let us see if they can nail the second half.

Stray Thoughts:

* Did anyone else think Frankenstein and his monster were going to makeout? Now that would have been a twist in the tale.

* This is the first premium show in recent memory that I can recall not showing any female nudity in its pilot. There was one sex scene, but it definitely serviced the female gaze (thanks, Hartnett!).

* Somehow spiders are way scarier than exsanguinated babies in vampire dens. Or maybe that was just me.

* Timothy Dalton’s character reminded me strongly of Sean Connery’s character in A League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Daniel Craig should feel comforted knowing that when he hits his twilight years, he too can lead a band of public domain literary characters through an alternate universe London.

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