It’s not every day that a horror series set in Victorian London makes its way to cable TV and unsurprisingly, there’s nothing quite like Penny Dreadful on HBOs roster. In some ways, it’d be easy to compare the series – which sees the fictional creations of Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and Oscar Wilde collide – with the HBO’s other historical drama Deadwood but Penny Dreadful has a unique literary slant that helps set it apart from its competition.
The primary driver for the plot in Penny Dreadful concerns Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a medium whose supernatural predispositions draw her employer, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and her associates into a web of intrigue hiding under the surface of the city. Things quickly escalate as the series goes on with both Victor Frankenstein(Harry Treadaway), Van Helsing(David Warner) and Dorian Grey(Reeve Carney) falling into the mix.
Weaving together a shared setting in same vein as Marvel’s Cinematic Universe for these timeless creations is a challenging one – and not one without precedent (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) – but showrunner John Logan handles it like a pro. He confidently juggles the show’s different plot threads and does a great job of letting them interweave in a way that feels organic. Penny Dreadful is an ensemble show but Logan never lets each member of the main cast be anything but the centre of their own story.
Penny Dreadful isn’t afraid to deviate from its source texts, and oft-times most of the deviations are smart ones that play off the audience’s expectations to great effect. The show frequently approaches well-known classics from new angles and is at its strongest when it weaves these classics together to tell more complex and sprawling stories – the storytelling in Penny Dreadful more than the sum of its parts.
The premise of Penny Dreadful would be nothing if the writing and acting couldn’t back it up, thankfully this side of things is gothic at its best. Dialogue feels true to the setting and barely an episode goes by without someone on the cast throwing out an impressive soliloquy. Reeve Carney and Harry Treadaway bring great performances to complex characters like Dorian Gray and Victor Frankenstein and while the latter gets a bit more screentime, I’m definitely excited to see the series dig into Dorian Grey more next season.
One of the most impressive things about Penny Dreadful is the way that these envisionments of classic characters flow so seamlessly alongside the series original character like Vanessa and gunslinger, Ethan Chandler (Josh Arnett). Eva Green is electrifying in her role – a good thing given she often ends up with the greater part of the script – and Arnett brings a nice American flavor to round out the series cast.
Although days are young for Penny Dreadful, it’s definitely up there with Game of Thrones when it comes to set design. Not since 2008’s Sherlock Holmes has Victorian London been so stylishly realised and things are paced in such a way that it really gives the series room to breath, expand and explore this setting in great detail.
However, The side effect to this is the series biggest weakness. Pacing for each episode In the series tended to be all over the place with some episodes masterfully juggling and weaving different subplots together while others getting bogged down with a single character. The season finale for the first season certainly delivers the goods but it felt like way too much screen time was spent having characters talk about hunting evil rather that actually do anything of note.
The first season of Penny Dreadful is a solid ride but the next season really needs to up the ante. The groundwork for these characters has been laid and I’d much rather see them escalate the tension here than just toss new literary works into the mix. Alternatively, the first season generally confined things to London and I’d be interested to see how character would function should their stories go abroad.