A Sneak Peek at Penny Dreadful

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I had big plans for last night: I was going to go to an early screening of the new Seth Rogan/Zac Efron comedy The Neighbors, a movie that I am looking forward to seeing (and that opens nationwide today). However, my agenda went out the window when I inexplicably got caught up in the NFL Draft. Believe me, no one is as surprised by that as I am; I’ve made no secret that in the past I’ve found watching the draft not all that dissimilar to watching paint dry. I actually only tuned in to see who the Bills picked, which should have been a short time commitment since they traded up for the 4th pick. But for some reason I didn’t turn off the TV and then got sucked into all the drama of quarterback Johnny Manziel and waiting for him to be drafted. I was riveted as team after team passed him over – I think, in part, because of the reactions of people on Twitter. There was some pretty good snark happening online last night; even the official Twitter account of the NFL got into the action by tweeting #SadManziel. I became totally invested in when this kid was going to finally be selected, despite the fact that a) I have no vested interest in this player and am completely unfamiliar with his abilities and b) watching a bunch of guys sitting around waiting for their names to be called isn’t all that exciting. But with the TV on mute so I didn’t have to listen to the insane rambling of the commenters and with the Twitterverse to keep me amused, I was all in. Next thing I knew, it was 10:30 pm and my plans for going to the movies that evening were dashed. It was all very discombobulating.

Before I got sucked down the rabbit hole that is the NFL Draft, however, I did get the chance to watch the first episode of the new Showtime series Penny Dreadful. The horror/literary mash-up series debuts this Sunday – because nothing says Mother’s Day like vampires and other related ghouls – but the good folks over at Showtime made the pilot available online in advance of the premiere. This is probably a smart movie, since there is just so much great TV currently on Sunday nights and it would be easy for this show to get lost in the shuffle. After watching the first episode of Penny Dreadful, I had two major takeaways:

1)      This show actually has some potential to be both interesting and entertaining

2)      Holy crap – Josh Hartnett is still alive and working!

Now, let me address the latter point first. There is no reason that the fact that Josh Hartnett is still a living, breathing person should be a shock. You didn’t miss a story where he was facing death or had gone down a road of personal destruction a la Lindsay Lohan. I assume he’s been fine. The reason that his continued survival is a takeaway for me, however, is because I had somehow completely forgotten that this guy had ever existed. He had been completely eradicated from my memory bank as ever having been a thing – possibly because I’ve never particularly been a fan of his work – so to suddenly see him on the screen was something of a jolt. My only real connection to Hartnett was that back in my days as a teaching assistant we had a student in one of the seminars that vaguely looked like the actor. That student was a real pain in the butt, so my association with the actor wasn’t particularly positive. Looking over his IMDB page, it doesn’t appear that Hartnett has done much work recently that would have kept him on my radar so I guess it isn’t totally surprising that he slipped completely from my mind. I’ve got a lot of pop culture going on in my brain – I’ve got to expunge some people and things to make room for the new. But hooray to Hartnett for working on a project that brings him back in to my consciousness. Bully for him.

The more important thing about Penny Dreadful is that this is a show that looks like it might have some real promise. The show takes its name from the cheap literary publications that used to be sold in Britain in the 19th century. Like the fiction stories that inspire the series, Penny Dreadful takes place in Victorian England and the stories focus on horror and the supernatural. It’s kind of something of a steampunk-ish version of American Horror Story, but less campy. The show is written by one of the people behind the James Bond film Skyfall and is gorgeously show and well-acted. There has been something of a renaissance in the horror/supernatural genre on TV, but Penny Dreadful manages to distinguish itself from a lot of the other programs out there. The pilot had some faults, but its overall execution was solid and intriguing enough that I plan to tune in for remaining episodes of this limited run series.

Two of the greatest strengths of Penny Dreadful are its stellar cast and its direction and cinematography. There are a lot of familiar faces in the series, beyond the aforementioned Hartnett, especially if you are a fan of the Bond franchise. The series stars Timothy Dalton, James Bond himself, as well as Billie Piper, Harry Treadaway and former 007 alum Eva Green. The cast of predominantly European actors are all talented and help ground a series that could easily dissolve into an over the top mess in less capable and restrained hands. The skill of the actors lends some much needed gravitas to a show that is about lots of scary and supernatural things; this doesn’t diminish from the fun of the show, but it a critical component that keeps Penny Dreadful from being batsh*t crazy. The potential for complete campiness is simmering right under the surface of the series, but the artful work of the cast steadies the show and helps to creates some very interesting characters. The show is a little like The League of Extraordinary Gentleman in that it brings together various characters and plots from existing literary fiction and then mixes them all together with original creations. I think half the fun of the show will be discovering the identities of some of the people – by the end of the pilot, we discover that one of the people that we meet is actually someone that we are already familiar with. This particular reveal isn’t all that surprising, given how the story unfolds, but it was still an interesting direction for the show to go in and to see that there was still some new life could be found in some characters that have been revisited on multiple occasions.

I’m particularly fond of period pieces and Penny Dreadful does a nice job of depicting life in England in the time after Jack the Ripper. That’s a credit to the director and cinematographer, who make some very interesting and stylistic choices in telling their story. They employ some camera angles that you don’t typically see on TV and the show is the better for it. Stylistically, Penny Dreadful is just a lot of fun to watch. It’s a dark world that we are spending time in, but it is vividly brought to life. There is gore in the show, but it is handled in an artful way. I didn’t find the pilot to be particularly scary, but it did an excellent job of creating mood and building the universe within the series will unfold. By the end of the first hour, I had a real sense of time, place and the characters that will inhabit it. That’s a lot to unpack and yet it doesn’t explain everything. We’ve just been given a first glimpse and the story and why I have ideas as to who these people are and where the story may go, it was only a small taste. Even if I hadn’t enjoyed Penny Dreadful as much as I did, I would have felt somewhat compelled to come back just to see how this was all going to play out.

The actual plot of the premiere episode was probably the weakest component; it is a little haphazard and I honestly couldn’t tell you that I fully got everything that was going on. The story that they tell was a bit uneven and they certainly have a lot of threads to follow. It’s my best guess that character will ultimately triumph over story in this series, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if they do it right. They appear to be taking a more languid pace with the action and often take a beat or two longer on some things to better build the mood and atmosphere. That’s an important part of horror – don’t rush the action – and from what I’ve seen so far they totally get that. This is not to say that there isn’t action in the episode, but they seem to be judicious with how they are doling it out. My best advice is to enjoy the character development and the occasional scares and to not focus too much about the story.

I don’t know that Penny Dreadful will be an instant classic, but I was more than pleased with what I have seen so far. It’s difficult to properly do horror on the small screen, but as a fan of the genre I am happy that television programs are beginning to figure out how to properly execute scary tales. The pedigree of the people associated with Penny Dreadful, both in front of and behind the camera, makes all the difference in this show and their ability to find a new way of looking at some familiar material is to their credit. I don’t know if I will ever find the series truly scary – a high bar for them to reach – but it was very successful in creating a creepy world and introducing some interesting characters. The time period and the subject matter could be just a gimmick if not done right, but thankfully it appears that all the people involved with Penny Dreadful are interested in creating a quality product. I’m not sure that the plots will ever live up to the acting, directing and cinematography, but I don’t know that they have to. I think Penny Dreadful may turn out to be a spooky and fun ride.

Penny Dreadful debuts Sunday May 11th at 10 pm on Showtime.

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