Be not afeard.
The isle is full of noises.
Caliban (the monster)
The Tempest 3.2.148
Showtime’s new series Penny Dreadful has its origins in literature of the late 19th century, a time when men of all kinds were questioning the relationship of the supernatural to man, of God to man, and what was on the other side. Named after the contemporaneous tabloids, the Penny Dreadfuls, which listed all the gruesome details of crimes and atrocities, including those of Jack the Ripper, the show’s atmosphere is haunting and spooky.
Most of its characters seem to inhabit “The Demi-monde”: a half world of shadows and light. It is there that Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), with the help of his daughter’s childhood friend Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and an American gun-for-hire Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett) search for Murray’s missing daughter Mina. In their search, they also encounter Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, and other fictional characters. Despite its flaws so far, the show is fascinating.
Penny Dreadful was created and is mostly written by John Logan, who, in the clip below, explains the literary origins of Penny Dreadful.
Despite the trailers, I found the first show a little slow, as did other viewers and reviewers. Till the end. So I watched the second. Then the third. The show does have some weaknesses, the most distracting of which is its disconnected storylines. I still haven’t figured out how Dr. Frankenstein is involved, though he was introduced in the first episode. His role in the “Searching for Mina” story seems mostly like a satellite, and his own story of his Creature, has been, at least temporarily, discarded.
How Dorian Gray fits in, I have no idea, I confess. And except for the fact that he has sex with a lot of people, I haven’t seen anything he’s done that he needs to hide. Unless he’s committing crimes we don’t know about. That’s the whole premise of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray: that the portrait becomes as gruesome and ugly on the outside as Dorian himself is morally, while he remains physically beautiful. (I had to explain that to my boyfriend, who kept asking where Jekyll and Hyde were, and didn’t know anything about Dorian Gray). Penny Dreadful Right Behind You Trailer.
- The stories of Dorian Gray and of Victor Frankenstein are not sufficiently integrated into the main story of Dracula (variously referred to as The Master and The Creature)
- In fact, Frankenstein and his creations are mostly shoved to the background, despite one entire episode devoted to him and them.
- Famous, or infamous, literary characters of the period, like Jekyll and Hyde, are missing, though I realize that they might show up later.
4. The most quirky flaw I’ve noticed so far is that every episode ends with a punch, a shock, an unexpected surprise. Now that could be considered a good thing, although it could end up making each episode seem like something from The Twilight Zone, where viewers just wait for the ending to get their fix, and make more sense of the story so far.
5. The most serious flaw in Penny Dreadful to date is that the story of Sir Malcolm Murray, his protegée Vanessa Ives, and their search for Sir Malcolm’s missing daughter Mina, who has been taken by Dracula (unnamed as yet) keeps getting interrupted by the vague appearances of Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein, and, frankly, Ethan Chandler, despite this final character’s being hired by Vanessa Ives to help in the search for Mina.
Still, the show is very intriguing. It has a lot of strengths.
- Dalton & Green. The interconnected internet tubes and social media are a-buzz with predictions of Eva Green’s Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for her brilliantly nuanced and terrifying performance as Vanessa Ives. Her strong performance is matched by the great Timothy Dalton’s as Sir Malcolm Murray, who is beginning to appear more in the show. Their ambiguous relationship and the sexual tension between them could make an entire series itself, that’s how well they’re acting their intriguing and frightening roles.
- The rest of the Cast. Taken as an ensemble cast, the remaining actors are doing a fine job. None outshines either Dalton or Green, however, but as a group, an ensemble, they’re doing a good job around the two central figures played by Dalton and Green.
- The Characters. Whether literary or original to Penny Dreadful, the characters themselves are interesting, and I certainly want to know more about them. The twists the writers have added to the literary characters are great.
- Everybody has secrets. As those secrets are slowly being revealed, the show is improving. (The secrets we already know about the literary characters are not secrets to the audience, most of which has, no doubt, a passing familiarity with the books. Their secrets are only secrets to the other characters in Penny Dreadful.) Still, the writer(s) have managed a few surprises based on the original literary character of Frankenstein so far.
- Sexual tension abounds. Especially between Timothy Dalton’s Sir Malcolm and Eva Green’s Vanessa (whether or not Dalton likes to dismiss it in interviews).
- Atmospheric Costumes, Sets, and Makeup. Just wait till you see the episode “Closer Than Sisters”, devoted entirely to Sir Malcolm, Mina, and Vanessa.
7. Finally, the greatest strength in Penny Dreadful is its writing. The audience is not treated like a bunch of buffoons who have to be hit over the head with every piece of symbolism that appears. The plot is often moved forward by what the characters don’t (or won’t) reveal rather than by what they reveal. The characters are interesting and the actors have good lines to say: that comes from the writer(s). Based on that alone, I’m going to keep watching. Penny Dreadful: Behold Terrible Wonders Trailer.
In fact, I’m starting to look forward to Penny Dreadful, which means the show seems to have found its stride and is firmly centering itself, letting the strengths outweigh the minor weaknesses. Metro Entertainment’s blog called Penny Dreadful “elegantly scripted, with a dangerously handsome cast, enchanting cinematography, and an enigmatic storyline.” While I don’t agree with everything Metro Entertainment said about the show, I agree with most of its points.
If you haven’t had a chance to watch Penny Dreadful yet, you can watch Episode 1 free on its homepage on Showtime. You can catch up with the remaining episodes on ShowtimeAnytime. Then, at 10 p.m. ET on Sunday, you’ll be ready to join the rest of us #Dreadfuls (from Twitter) and buzz about the show.
If you want to read the books that the literary characters are based on, Showtime is offering them for sale on its site, but you can get them free as ebooks: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein. And I’ve thrown in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde simply because no exploration of that period would be complete without it, and I can’t believe he won’t show up, eventually, in Penny Dreadful.
And, note to the creator and writers: I want to be afeard. I want to be very afeard.