Obviously, I am a friend to the supernatural horror television show. If your premise involves humans fighting scary monsters, possibly with some snark or at least a heavy amount of innovative production design, I’m probably your guy. So I’ve been intrigued by Showtime’s upcoming series Penny Dreadful, which has been so shrouded in mystery that no one even really knew what it was about other than that it looked vaguely Victorian and possibly a little steampunk-y. Thankfully for those of us who don’t have Showtime, you can stream the entire first episode over on YouTube right now and check it out for yourself. Or you can read my blog post! (Hint: do the second one.)
So what is Penny Dreadful about? Even after watching the first episode, it’s hard to say. Essentially, it’s London in 1891. American Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnet) is running a travelling Wild West themed show that’s mostly bullshit when he is conscripted by Mysterious Woman Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) to help her with a job that’s going to require his uncanny skill with a pistol. The job turns out to be invading an opium den where the goings on aren’t exactly of this earth. Before we know it, our American is drawn into a world of monsters and maybe possibly ghosts but certainly tarot cards and it’s all going to be extremely Victorian. There’s a lot going on here, so let’s unpack it properly, shall we?
"Wot's awl this then, Guv'nor?"
First, the production design. Great Muppety Odin does this show look slick. The costumes are lavish, the sets are beautiful if a little too bare (this was Victorian London, after all – the culture that never met an extra piece of furniture it wouldn’t cram into a room the size of a closet), and the makeup and special effects are appropriately gory and queasy. There's no shortage of sewn-together flesh, mangled limbs, and dark red splatters against those good old London bricks, but for all the blood, we still never feel like we're veering too far into the torture-porn territory of modern horror movies.
Second, the source material. This show is drawing from every Victorian horror trope you can think of. Imagine Van Helsing or Hansel & Gretl: Witch Hunters but without the camp factor and taking itself more seriously. Your mileage may vary on this, but if you’re a fan of old school literary horror, you’re definitely going to find something in here you like. Likewise, you may find yourself in a few solid Pillow of Fear moments if you’re not careful.
Third, Eva Green. Kids, this lady personifies the phrase “screen presence”. After the first episode, we know next to nothing about her character, Vanessa Ives, and yet every time Eva Green is on the screen you can’t help but pay attention to her. Even through some sloppy editing and confusing action sequences, Eva Green feels like the character that we can latch onto because she’s so clear in her intentions, even if we don’t know what those intentions are.
"I own you, bitches."
First, disorganization of plot. The bad guys are definitely vampires. Maybe definitely. Except they’re also kind of zombies. Zombie vampires? But then, the doctor on our team discovers that their skin is concealing an exo-skeleton. So, aliens I guess? But the exoskeleton is covered in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Alien mummy vampire zombies? Sure. Let’s go with that for now. And they want… something? And our heroes want… to stop them? To get their lost loved ones back? From where? Good mystery shows should never give you the full story in the first episode, obviously. But a good mystery needs to give us enough of the facts of the story to make us want to keep learning more.
Personally, I'm just hoping that the monsters are like this.
Second, the source material. Again. Remember how when you had your first job interview and you tried to turn all your weaknesses into strengths? Just like that here. This show is crammed full of things. Everything and the kitchen sink is thrown at us in terms of characters. It’s kind of like League of Extraordinary Gentleman meets The Exorcist. Maybe it's a by-product of the Glee television generation where every plotline is thrown at the viewer as quickly as possible, but just because that's a style doesn't make it a recommended one.
Third, pretention. The show is trying very hard to stay true to the horror aspects of Victorian literature. In that sense, it’s got more than a strand or two of DNA borrowed from NBC’s Hannibal, the show about everyone’s favorite serial-killing cannibal, but unfortunately it hasn’t quite achieved the same smoothly stylized high-art feel that Hannibal has managed to corner. That doesn’t stop it from trying to hide its more cringe-inducing moments under the veneer of this being some kind of story that Means Something.
Oh gosh, you guys – the dialogue needs work. In addition to some of the most cliché-ridden stuff you’ve heard in a while, whole stretches go one where characters will be talking to each other in ways that no human, Victorian or otherwise, ever would. It’s again a testament to Eva Green’s screen presence that whenever she’s talking, she can draw you in, even if you don’t understand a single sentence. Far too frequently the dialogue veers into the cardinal sin of fiction writing – it’s all tell, no show. We hear about how deep and significant characters are, but we don’t see it at all. It’s just one character telling us how much we need to care without making us actually do it.
As such, the most troubling part of the first episode for me is how much I didn’t care about what was happening. The episode failed my iPhone test, which is to say that I lost interest about halfway through and started playing with my phone while watching the second half. Pilots are never easy beasts, but this one is particularly fussy. I found myself not understanding anything about the plot or the characters or why anyone was acting the way they did at any point.
NO, WAIT! DON'T LEAVE ME!
A family member of mine likes to say that in relationships, there’s often one person who’s reaching and one person who is settling. That's pessimistic, but I don't think it's necessarily inaccurate. If we carry that metaphor forward to the screen, Penny Dreadful is definitely reaching for the love of its viewers. That doesn’t mean that viewers will have to settle, but it’s not the best dynamic to start with. Hopefully, this show can pull itself up. Showtime and HBO are both networks that, due to filming entire seasons in one go, are more comfortable thinking of their episodes as book chapters rather than individual mini-movies that have to break every box office record or else the next episode isn’t going to air.
As such, Penny Dreadful may be the kind of show that rewards its viewers a few episodes in. That’s certainly a possibility given that the first episode doesn’t even introduce all the main characters – there’s still plenty of time to grow. Fan-favorite Billie Piper hasn't even shown up, and it sounds like her character is some kind of potential prostitute because Showtime knows that nerds like to see Billie Piper being sexy. Fans, and Showtime, will just have to hope that the rewards start coming quickly or else all that beautiful messy potential is going to end up splattered like the blood that Penny Dreadful clearly isn’t afraid to shed.