Penny Dreadful, Season One Review
I’ve wanted to try watching Penny Dreadful since it first premiered in 2014, but not being a Showtime subscriber I’d been unable to… that is until last week when I saw that it was now on Netflix. I’m not quite sure how I missed that, but it joined Netflix with the first two seasons earlier this month. And so the past two days have been spent drinking tea and watching the first season of Penny Dreadful.
I’m not usually one for horror, but this show has appealed to me since I first saw an ad for it. There are a lot of contributing factors as to why, but at first my biggest draw was Eva Green, one of my favorite actresses, and while she’s phenomenal in the lead she’s not the only amazing actor to make up the ensemble that is Penny Dreadful.
Wow, does Penny Dreadful set the mood perfectly! The tone of the show is a wonderful testament to its basis – the Victorian era’s fascination with the sensational, Gothic horror genre that spawned the little “penny dreadful” (also called “penny awful” “penny horrible” or “penny blood”). Penny dreadfuls were serial publications that could be bought for only a penny, and focused on supernatural and horror tales. The Victorian era was also the time of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and other famous works by Edgar Allen Poe and H.G. Wells (not to mention the sensationalism in the press surrounding Jack the Ripper during this time). Penny Dreadful not only encapsulates the feel and themes of penny awfuls and Victorian Romantic Gothic, but it also combines all of the aforementioned stories into one supernatural show, and I must say I felt impressed that it did it so well. I remember being incredibly excited for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which had the same premise, and unfortunately was corny and didn’t have the tone I wanted it to have. Penny Dreadful manages to pull off the tone that matches the wonderfully Gothic inspiration it pulls from.
The acting in the show is phenomenal. It has quite the cast, too. Eva Green steals the show as a troubled clairvoyant. Timothy Dalton is the strong, tries-to-be-stoic Sir Malcolm Murray, a famed explorer looking for his daughter (Mina Harker, anyone?) and does an amazing job in the role. Josh Hartnett is an American cowboy in London running from something in his past, and seemingly more than he appears. Billie Piper plays an Irish prostitute, with an admittedly difficult accent (sorry Billie!) who is dying of consumption. Which is also a staple of Gothic horror, blood-based illnesses, especially with the actual rise in tuberculosis during this time period. Three of the actors I was more unfamiliar with impressed me the most; Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray, Harry Treadaway as young Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and Rory Kinnear as the Creature. Everyone in the show is excellent – in a show like this trying to pull together so many famous characters, a great cast is exactly what you need to make it work.
One of the things I appreciated the most was that the gore is always central to the plot. I can be a bit squeamish, and one of the main reasons (besides being scared easily) that I dislike horror is the unnecessary gore. But when you’re hunting down vampiric creatures and there’s someone murdering in the style of Jack the Ripper, there’s going to be plenty of blood to go around. I was thoroughly impressed that for a show like this, the gore was always purposeful – it made it much easier to handle. Similarly, for the majority of the time, the sex and nudity were also central to the plot. I said for the most part – occasionally they took the Game of Thrones route of “sex sells!” albeit without the “sexposition” for which GoT has become known.
The Slightly Meh
Overall I have thoroughly enjoyed the first season and am rushing finishing this review so I can begin the second! My biggest complaint came from the pacing, which in parts was either too slow or too rushed. I’m beginning to notice a trend with this in shows, where it will be slow and not even just thoroughly covering exposition, and then suddenly in the span of 10-15 minutes of show time several things happen that resolve or undo the plot. Frequently an episode would go from dragging to so much action that I had to go back and try to figure out how the show had gotten there because I had, admittedly, spaced out a little from the slower plot. That’s not a huge drawback for me since I’ve been seeing this problem happen in so many shows. As a whole, our show-runners need to start looking at this problem, but beyond that Penny Dreadful is a Gothic, suspenseful, richly crafted horror/drama…
Which has unfortunately come to an end! While looking up something during the show, I discovered a mild spoiler for myself by seeing an article talking about the decision to end the show at season 3. Interestingly, it comes from the creator’s desire to end the show the way he wanted, and not because Showtime cancelled it. Hopefully season 3 comes to Netflix soon so that I can see how that decision plays out – I always appreciate when show creators actually know when it’s time to call it quits instead of dragging a show on past its creative life.