[This is a spoiler-free entry for Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, Seasons 1 and 2]
My best friend recommended I check out Penny Dreadful about a year ago. On a whim, I bought the dvds, thinking that if I didn’t like it I could give it to someone who did – and I was a gigantic fool for thinking that.
The very first episode drew me in – a rare thing these days since it usually takes me until the 3rd episode to really get interested in a show. With most series that’s how long it takes the crew and cast to get their feet under them and really start moving things alone. A show like PD, which only has 10 episodes in a season (and is expensive to make, I mean the COSTUMES! The SETS!), doesn’t have the luxury of a few “throwaway” episodes and has to be gripping from start to finish. It caught me just a few minutes in and hasn’t let go yet!
The show has so much going for it, it would take about 10k words to really get into why people should be watching it, but here are just a few moments and thoughts on why I am enjoying it so much. I shall keep them spoiler-free!
It’s a testament to the amazing actors that I literally CAN NOT pick a favorite character. I love them all!
As an English lit nerd, I love that some of the classics of Victorian horror/science fiction literature have been assembled on screen in such lush detail and surroundings. As history nerd, I love that certain problematic aspects of the Victorian age are addressed and explored, sometimes in the background and sometimes in the fore – slavery, imperialism, Native American genocide are all discussed and inform the world in which the characters live [NOTE: while the issues are touched on, they are not the focus of the show; this is a show about hot people doing interesting things in amazing costumes on amazing sets as they explore the darkness within the human soul vs. the darkness of actual supernatural evil].
Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), is an invented character but she combines many of the common Victorian female tropes even as she challenges them. I like to think she’s based on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, or Oscar Wilde’s mother. She’s intelligent, outspoken, and has a rapier wit. She hangs out with a bunch of dudes in a time when a man and a woman being alone in a room for more than five seconds could bring ruination on a woman’s good name. She also deals with some of the pain in the ass prejudices women had to put up with at the time – such as being dismissed as being ‘hysterical’ and dealing with mental problems. Green makes Vanessa the center of every scene with her animated face and occasional moments of pinpoint comic timing – and when she has one of her many dark moments, then you’d best plug in the nightlight and break out a blankie because it’s getting SCARY up in here.
Ethan Chandler, played by Josh Hartnett, is another delightful explosion of tropes. An American, he is a walking lesson of the existential guilt most modern Americans feel about the ‘let’s settle this land and pretend the people already living here aren’t really people and MANIFEST DESTINY FTW GUYS’ problem. Ethan was in the military and assisted in the extermination of tribes (a difficult thing to accept about his character I admit), and now works as a sharpshooter for a Wild West show when he isn’t diddling starstruck chicks whom he forgets the moment he leaves town. He’s busily drinking himself to oblivion when Vanessa approaches him in the first episode. Hartnett is the kind of actor who can make folding laundry watchable – which is funny because when he first came on the scene back in the early 2000s I thought of him as another pretty boy who’d be in a bunch of romances and then fade away. The more fool me – it’s clear that he was studying at the McConaghey School of Enlightenment and I am terrible and judgmental.
Sir Malcolm Murray is another delightful deconstruction; played to the hilt by the glorious Timothy Dalton, Murray divides his time between exploring Africa, being a shitty father, and being a shitty husband. He’s the engine that drives the story of the first season, and he’s powered by enough self-importance and unshakeable firmness of character that he could make a lord-shaped hole in a brick wall. Of course his demons come home to haunt him, but watching Dalton chew scenery is one of my favorite pastimes and he plays the character beautifully. Much of the first season revolves around his attempts to find his daughter Mina (and if you know anything about Victorian literature, yes, it’s THAT Mina).
We also have Victor Frankenstein, played by Harry Treadaway with staring, glassy-eyed perfection. It’s hard to bring something new to such an old, familiar character, but Treadaway makes every movement and thought riveting. His Frankenstein is a species of unusual optimist, at once deeply cynical about religion while incredibly naive about human relationships, to the point of denial–fitting for a man who only believes what he can physically quantify.
GOSH. I am running out of raving room! And I haven’t even covered Billie Piper (MAGIC as Brona the Irish prostitute), Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray, Rory Kinnear as… well, I don’t want to spoil it. His entrance is QUITE…ripping? *upper crust English laughter*
There’s a moment in the very first episode that caught me, and I’ll share it here because it’s such an elegant hook and I don’t think it really counts as a spoiler.
Vanessa and Sir Malcolm employ Ethan as a hired gun to guard them down in a vampire’s den. A fight breaks out, and a vampire barrels across the room toward one of the men, intent on gutting them. With no gun or weapon, Vanessa steps in and gets in his face with absolute self-assuredness. Armed with nothing more than glower power and disapproving Victorian schoolmarmishness, she has the stopping power of a Desert Eagle and the vampire is frozen in place. She’s no damsel in distress, and I love her for it. Sure, she’s in danger at times, but so are the other characters and I love what a weird family of beloved misfits they become.
Penny Dreadful is intended for a mature audience and it feels like it; I’m not talking about violence or *giggles* BOOBIES, I’m talking about a show that doesn’t insult its viewers or abuse their trust. You won’t find a show that makes you fall in love with a character only to throw them away for no reason–, although characters do die. Penny Dreadful may not take itself too seriously, but it takes its viewers seriously and for that I appreciate it all the more.
Penny Dreadful is available on DVD and on Showtime. The 2nd season just ended but the show’s been renewed for a third. Check it out if you like your horror served hot and with some dashedly witty dialogue!
Have *you* seen Penny Dreadful? What did you think?