We're halfway through the first season of Penny Dreadful. And even though early on, it had a few indicators of possible disaster — an overtly League of Extraordinary Gentleman premise, stray subplots — it's become a show that delivers fun surprises with a sleek veneer. Here are 10 reasons to catch up on this campy horror show.
This is, admittedly, the show's biggest gauntlet. But one of its greatest aspects is how wholeheartedly it embraces the conventions of its source material. People deliver entire conversations full of potent foreshadowing and then call it a night. Or an episode will be structured around a lengthy flashback monologue. It's all still operating under TV rules, of course — eventually everything circles back to fit in with the central plots, and TV is inherently a serial medium. But it's clearly up on the conventions of the penny dreadful, from random corpses to a lust for colonial exploration, and if that's a thing you're into, you're in luck.
Penny Dreadful's casting department must have been cackling as they scooped up this collection of movie talent (Eva Green, Timothy Dalton), under-the-radar Brits (Harry Treadaway, Rory Kinnear, Danny Sapani, Alex Price, Simon Russell Beale), and wild cards (Josh Hartnett). But the ensemble, which features familiar names like Frankenstein and Dorian Gray alongside original characters Vanessa Ives and Ethan Chandler, finds itself in the enviable position of having so much general chemistry that almost every scene has a thrumming energy of tense resentment, unexpected connection, or generalized lust.
But there's got to be a breakout character, and Vanessa's it. According to Dorian Gray, she's the most mysterious thing in London. And Eva Green's performance makes that true, while showing us it's not the whole truth. Green's struggled in the past to find parts worthy of her dark intensity, but Vanessa's tailor-made for her, and she gets the most from a character whose sexuality plays out along traditionally male story markers: the casual tryst without follow-up, desire as a potential plot point without eclipsing her central mystery (she's being haunted by the devil — it takes up a lot of her time). If the séance in Episode two doesn't land her an Emmy nomination, her moments of terrified sorrow should do the trick.
In Penny Dreadful, there's no nineteenth-century detail left unturned. Séance under the guise of semi-respectable party game? Done. A morning at the botanical garden with rat-baiting as the evening's entertainment? Of course. Doctor's workshops that look like abbatoirs? Rooms so stuffed with "exotic" decor of every stripe that Dorian Gray points out the mishmash to a total stranger? Wild West shows and Grand Guignol theatrical gorefests? Boudoir photographs? Sensational crime journalism? It's all here, and the whole cast's game for the occasional camp requirements.
There's a deliberate theatricality to many of the set pieces and historical trappings, and that's right in line with the show's overarching themes of public horrors set against private ones. It's beginning to look like the Grand Guignol in particular is going to be plenty useful in delivering story as accidental truth. (Werewolves? Why, it's as if you're trying to tell us something!) But this is also a text that leans more toward Alan Moore's comic-book version of League than the movie, in its exploration of the damage behind all this flash. Grand discussions of exploration and conquering the globe are sapped of any heroic color and left to be the megalomaniacal hungers they are, and Victor Frankenstein's been sharply confronted with the complications of trying to make good on past hubris in all the wrong ways. If they could just give Sembene a decent subplot, we'd be set.
Rare is the show in which the handsome-but-haunted leading man with a tortured past and near-supernatural fighting skill is made so tangential to the plot. He has his moments (right now he's dating a consumptive and joining the crew on supernatural outings), but Penny Dreadful has kept him on a deliberate slow burn that means his primary job right now is to wait for information no one ever, ever wants to give him.
The stares of freeform lust have to take a backseat to hunting Dracula occasionally, but this show lets all that free-floating chemistry actually land. In fact, it's rather open about its subtext — Frankenstein and Caliban are the world's most bitter exes, and Vanessa and Mina are featured next week in an episode titled "Closer than Sisters," which sounds awfully Carmilla of them. But last week, the show doubled down and had its most traditionally masculine character (Ethan Chandler, American Cowboy) go home with Dorian Gray for what looked like an evening of gay subtext that ended up being extremely text. If Vanessa and Mina are anywhere close, we're looking at a show whose main character bisexuality rate is creeping up toward 50%. Intriguing.
If you're here for a pile of bloody corpse parts you might be disappointed — it's been two weeks since one of those — but there's more coming. If you're into bug horror, there's plenty of that too (also, you're wrong). And there's enough creepy camerawork to suit anyone looking for a crawling sense of general unease; this show plays so well with the pan-along that reveals the uncanny that as soon as that camera starts to move, you're ready for the worst.
It helps that the cast's collective bone structure and undereye circles are ringers for a show like this one, but Penny Dreadful definitely has some visual flair.
Looking at the sheer density of plot they've already churned through, even the show's quiet moments are clearly setup for something spooky down the line. (And it's just been renewed for a second season.) But one of the show's best tricks is treating us the way it treats Ethan — telling us only what we need to know, and leaving us to guess the rest. And Penny Dreadful has a single credited writer (John Logan), which bodes well when trying to consider if all those foreboding conversation-stoppers are building to a central purpose. We just have no idea what it is. Well played, show.