The more I watch television, the more I become interested in how certain networks build identities based on the shows they choose to pick up. Looking at a couple of the other premium cable networks, Starz and Cinemax are clearly going for something specific with their line-ups (adventure and action, respectively). Penny Dreadful, though, doesn’t do anything to build on whatever Showtime is doing in that regard. That means absolutely nothing in terms of the quality of the series, but it’s amusing just to think that this horror show has joined other series like Homeland, Shameless and Masters of Sex (and Ray Donovan, but no one cares about Ray Donovan) on Showtime, none of which share much of a resemblance to Penny Dreadful. However, that may be part of what makes Penny Dreadful so delightful. With no true horror series around, I would argue, it has created a great opportunity for itself to provide television with a solid representative of the genre (most shows labeled horror–many of them full-on supernatural–only really have one foot in the genre, whereas Penny Dreadful is really going for that classic horror vibe; one exception might be American Horror Story, but its most recent season was very far from horror).
Like some of those classic horror stories, Penny Dreadful eschews a layered narrative in favor of going all out on atmosphere and tone, and it is successful because of that. There are scenes in “Night Work” that opt for cheap scare tactics, but there are also images and framings that show a more nuanced way of eliciting thrills. Director J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage) does a fine job, for example, of creating tension by either moving the camera up and down or from left to right, playing with and feeding into viewers’ expectations. When Malcolm is visited by Mina and she appears in the back of the shot, blurred, as the camera rolls past, you get the feeling you’re in good hands here. So, for fans of horror who are wondering if it’s worth checking out Penny Dreadful, I would want to recommend the series if just on that basis alone.
Yet, it would be foolish to ignore the on-screen talent here. Timothy Dalton and Eva Green anchor a wonderful cast that includes Josh Hartnett and Harry Treadaway in what look to be the other major roles. The leads fit right in here in Victorian England, Dalton playing the wizened Malcolm and Green immediately making her Vanessa Ives enigmatic and gorgeous. Surprisingly, Treadaway steals the pilot by way of his final scene, in which it is revealed that he is Victor Frankenstein. While the other characters mostly get plot-heavy scenes, Frankenstein’s encounter with his creation is beautifully moving and shows that Penny Dreadful has the capacity to be more than just a solid genre show but a genuinely good drama altogether. The best part about that scene is how it is played for tension to begin with, but then it transitions as realization pours across both characters’ trembling faces. I’m not familiar with Treadaway’s work, but he has already made a rather large impression.
Anyone familiar with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen will see a parallel to how Malcolm and Vanessa are trying to recruit a team to help combat the forces of the night (and to help Malcolm reunite with his daughter). And like The League, Penny Dreadful brings together several different characters from the period in fiction, some of which will be revealed as the season goes along. Hartnett’s Ethan Chandler is the audience stand-in, introduced to the more sinister things happening behind closed doors when Vanessa offers him a job. That structure of bringing characters together as a team is something that fits genre fiction incredibly well, and each of these characters adds something interesting to the group even if they aren’t quite a group yet.
With only eight episodes to air this year, Penny Dreadful joins several other freshmen series like True Detective and Black Sails that have to be incredibly economical. This pilot introduces enough characters, information and ideas that the questions I have don’t make me worry that the series will take too long to answer them. There’s a surprising amount of confidence alongside such a wacky concept, most likely helped by how easy people like Green make it to sit through the quieter parts through great line delivery and general charge. Again, the story won’t be the thing that will draw in viewers and, I imagine, it won’t be the thing that will keep them coming back. However, that’s not to say that the thinness is a problem or that the story is bad, which it isn’t. Even if it doesn’t come around, there is already a world built in the pilot. In that sense, Penny Dreadful fulfills the “fun” quota that a television series ought to. Watching this one in the dark makes the experience that much better, because the atmosphere is spot-on and is doing exactly what it needs to be. Get ready for seven more weeks of monster shenanigans.
[Photo via Showtime]