Film and TV

Why the Hell Aren't You Watching Penny Dreadful?

As someone whose only real night of television fun is Sunday, I feel your (probable) pain. Mad Men is gone for another year, Breaking Bad is gone for good, and Game of Thrones will be going away in two weeks. Where can the sitcom/reality show averse person go for entertainment?

Believe it or not, the answer to that might be Showtime. Long considered a weak sister to HBO, the pay cable network is making a pretty hard run at its rival network's Sunday night supremacy with shows like Homeland, Ray Donovan, Masters of Sex, and Shameless.

Midway through its inaugural season, I'd argue that Penny Dreadful gives any of those a run for their money. Set in a Victorian England that will be familiar to readers of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, the show is reminiscent of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the comic, not the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad movie), assembling a cast of familiar literary characters to do battle with ancient evil while also wrestling with their own personal demons. Still not convinced? It also has boobs.

I don't usually use this space to promote TV shows, especially those that have been doing a fine job promoting themselves, but I'm honestly worried that Showtime won't renew PD for a second season. The second and third episode each averaged @ 720,000 viewers (by comparison, Homeland averages over two million, while the latest ep of Game of Thrones scored 7.2 million), which is not encouraging. For that reason, I'd like to lay out some reasons you should give it a spin.

Obviously, spoilers abound.

Here Be Monsters I mentioned Stoker and Shelley, so you know vampires and reanimated corpses are in play, but there's also s good deal of literary bouillabaisse-ing going on. There's Dorian Gray macking on everyone (or whatever they called it at the turn of the previous century), meanwhile the Master (whom they haven't explicitly referred to as "Dracula") looks to be tied to ancient Egyptian mythology. Dr. Frankenstein has (well, "had") not one but two creations, and they seem to be hinting that Calban might eventually turn into the Phantom (of the Opera, or Grand Guignol, as the case may be. And if that weren't enough, Jack the Ripper may be up to ye olde trickes again.

What will likely end up as the least likely reveal is Josh Hartnett's character's (Ethan Chandler) big secret. Let's see: gets along with large, angry canines; has unnerving flashbacks about a disemboweled prostitute; and won't let Victor take any of his blood. Where wolf, again?

On Her Majesty's Secret Service As an unabashed James Bond obsessive, I'm especially pleased at the number of current and former movie cast members utilized on Penny Dreadful (possibly a side effect of Game of Thrones employing just about every other working European actor). Obsessed explorer Malcolm Murray is played by Timothy Dalton, 007 in The Living Daylights, License to Kill (and at 70, still looks eminently capable of kicking your ass), while Rory Kinnear (Caliban) played M's aide Bill Tanner in Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. Helen McCrory, who portrayed the "won't be invited back" Madame Kali, also appears in Skyfall, which was written by Penny Dreadful creator John Logan.

More significantly, the mysterious Vanessa Iles is played by Eva "Casino Royale Green, which brings me to ...

Eva Green Ist Krieg

Even in terrible movies, Green is insanely watchable, emphasis on the insane. Vanessa is easily the most complex -- and tortured, considering she's apparently largely responsible for Mina's disappearance-- character on Penny Dreadful. However, in the most recent episode she showed she's also capable of tenderness (with young Lucy, before that went dark) and genuine affection (with Reeve Carney's Dorian Gray, who I'm not writing much about because the character has never done it for me). During "Séance," she gave voice to the demon (Amunet) within, while also channeling the voice of Murray's dead(?) son Peter, this after saying the Hail Mary before a crucifix that loosed spiders before turning upside down.

Hey, it can't all be subtle.

Das Vampyr The central storyline in Penny Dreadful looks like it's hewing pretty closely to Stoker's Dracula: Mina Murray has been taken by a vampire (called the "Master") and Malcolm has assembled the others to assist him in getting her back; then there's "Fenton" in the role of vampire thrall, though they couldn't use the name "Renfield" escapes me; Vanessa meets a little girl named Lucy, who may be a reference to Lucy Westenra, Dracula's first victim in London. Finally, the latest episode introduced "hematologist" Abraham Van Helsing, played by the great David Warner (who has some Ripper bona fides of his own), so who knows if Arthur, Jonathan, and the Brides will be far behind.

And The Rest We still don't know what connection Murray's driver/manservant/cat dispatcher Sembene (Danny Sapani) has to the explorer, or what abilities he may possess. Consumptive prostitute Brona Croft (Billie Piper) has mentioned a violent husband forced her into her current life, which had me thinking of ... I don't know, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? More likely she'll end up being the mate Calbina demanded of Victor. And we still have yet to see what ... "state" Mina is in.

Few horror movies, let alone TV shows, that I've seen in recent years have done as good a job as Penny Dreadful at setting a tone that doesn't rely on jump scares and mere gross-outs (though there's plenty of that). My worry is that a mere eight episodes won't allow the show to build its mythology, much less an audience. If this sounds like it might be your bag, I encourage you to check it out.

And if stuff like watching rich British dudes betting on how many rats a dog can kill in two minutes doesn't appeal to you, I'd venture it's not that different thematically from The Bachelorette.

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar