Season 1 (2014)
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Victorian England ran rampant with superstition, stories of the supernatural, and interest in the occult. Showtime has combined all three into Penny Dreadful, which takes the most famous fictional characters of the Victorian age and casts them into a sinister series of events.
The famous gunslinger and performer Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is touring Europe as part of a traveling western side show when he meets Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a mysterious woman in need of his weaponry skills. He agrees to a fair price for a night’s work and accompanies her and her mysterious benefactor, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), into the London underground – where , in a search for Murray’s daughter, they uncover a den of vampires. Shocked, Ethan asks for an explanation, so Vanessa tells him that a demi-world exists, full of all sorts of hellish creatures, and it is their job to stop them from doing harm.
London is wracked by vicious, grotesque murders and rumors circulate the Jack the Ripper has returned. Ethan considers whether or not to join them on a permanent basis, while Murray uncovers a sinister link between a new kind of vampire and ancient Egyptian gods. A disturbing séance unravels more clues, drawing them to the attention of Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), a macabre soul with a fascination with “dying things.” Murray takes his evidence to Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) for his opinion, not realizing the good doctor has a secret of his own. There is more in London than just vampires, and Frankenstein's first creature (Rory Kinnear) has returned, demanding a wife.
Blending elements of Frankenstein and Dracula with shadows of the Wolfman, Penny Dreadful showed a tremendous amount of promise in its first couple of episodes, but the structure started to weaken the further I got into the series. Characters' actions are rarely explained and don't always make sense. Individual episodes explore their backgrounds and motivations, but usually only make us dislike them more. Plot threads are explored and then dropped, with no follow-through, which leads me to suspect much of it was written purely for shock value rather than necessary development. I'm starting to wonder, in fact, if any television writers still exist who can spin a good story without relying on shocking sex to hold it together. This one can't, although I'm not sure whether his imagination or the cable network's demands for pornography are to blame.
The sad thing is, there are moments Penny Dreadful is magnificent. It tells the Frankenstein story more faithfully and beautifully than any other adaptation. It is an incredible idea, to bring such a great collection of Victorian fabrications together. But these moments, which include wolves in the zoo, heartfelt discussions between Van Helsing and Frankenstein, Frankenstein learning compassion for his own creation, and the gut-wrenching loneliness of the Creature, are frequently overshadowed by lewdness and poor storytelling. It isn't that I want to see total debauchery on screen, but introducing Dorian Gray into a story and then utilizing him merely to seduce most of the other characters is a complete waste. Where is his evil side? Where is his darkness? I was expecting Dorian to be involved in the grotesque murders in London, but the strong plot established in the pilot goes nowhere. Even the "love story" between Ethan and Billie Piper's character is pointless, since there is no meat to it, and no reason to understand why he's upset over her tuberculosis when they spend all of twenty minutes of screen time together.
My frustration with the series is twofold: firstly, its
emphasis on disgusting content, and secondly, its inability to
live up to its own potential. It offends me on a moral,
religious, and intellectual level by promising greatness and
delivering something rather dreadful.
Lots of sex scenes, containing nudity and/or movement (one such scene involves a demon); full male and female frontal nudity, both on corpses and as part of an orgy; Dorian seduces another man (they kiss and start to undress one another).
Frequent uses of the f-word, crude references to parts of the female anatomy; various profanities, a half dozen abuses of Jesus' name, and slang terms.
Dismembered corpses are shown in gruesome detail (arms ripped apart, torsos splattered across the pavement, intestines unraveling in the street); people are shot, stabbed, beaten, smothered, etc., all with a bloody aftermath. A cat's neck is broken, killing it, before the body is tossed to a vampire. The vampire is tortured for information.