Showtime’s latest effort is PENNY DREADFUL. Set in a fictional version of 1890s London, we meet a cast of odd characters drawn together by the supernatural. Threats loom below the surface of the thriving city, and only these people are aware of what’s going on and have the ability to do something about it.
PENNY DREADFUL is stylistically an idealized version of Victorian England just before the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth. The setting is what people like to romantically think back about the city being like, probably not how it actually was. This series is more concerned with building a Sherlock Holmes-era tone than faithfully following history.
This is clear very quickly in the characters introduced. Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett, Black Hawk Down) is a formerly wealthy American now performing in a traveling Wild West show. He’s recruited by the severe Miss Vanessa Ives (Eva Green, Casino Royale), a medium, to assist her and Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton, Licence to Kill, Chuck), a rich explorer of Africa, to hunt down a missing girl that means a lot to both of them. These are all interesting, outsize personalities that feel quite familiar to the type of story in this time and place, rather than being like someone that actually existed.
To make PENNY DREADFUL even more fantastic, the trio soon go to Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway, The Lone Renger) – yes, that Dr. Victor Frankenstein – for help. Frankenstein is researching electricity and the human body as he builds his creature (Rory Kinnear, Skyfall), and Malcolm and company need him to examine a corpse of something vaguely vampiric and definitely not human.
What this makes for is sort of a Once Upon a Time-like series, twisting and combining tales we already know into something new, though the tone is completely different. PENNY DREADFUL is so faithful to the fictional Victorian England that it feels very much like it is based on a book written within that genre. It’s a very slow moving piece, conveying horror more through the moods of the characters and their reaction to discoveries than by action-packed sequences, but is extremely effective in doing so.
Now, this is 2014, and viewers demand that pacing not drag on too much. To satisfy those urges, there are a couple of sequences in the first episode where fighting is had and blood is spilled. I would not call PENNY DREADFUL boring; instead, it’s a slight update on a popular period that never existed, but feels like it did. Still, there’s definitely commitment to the style, such as the way Vanessa slowly spreads out a stack of cards, that show just how deliberate the production is with its choices and committed to the path its on.
The plot is chock full of mystery. We don’t know the backgrounds of any of the characters right away, and none are exactly forthcoming about themselves. In fact, when Ethan first asks Vanessa if she has a name, she simply replies “Yes” as she walks away. The teases are tantalizing, but this is one show that will be holding its cards very, very close to its vest, doling out little bits at a time.
To illustrate just how little PENNY DREADFUL gives us at once one only needs to look at how it brings the main characters in very slowly, one at a time. Three of the publicized main cast, Irish immigrant Brona Croft (Billie Piper, Doctor Who), manservant Sembene (Danny Sapani, Trance), and the infamous ever-youthful Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney, The Tempest), don’t even appear in the pilot screened for critics. I’m also looking forward to Helen McCrory’s (Harry Potter) Madame Kali, whom isn’t glimpsed. This show is going to build tension and story arcs, not just give them to you.
All of which is why I very much enjoyed PENNY DREADFUL. Full on intense, compelling performances from the likes of Dalton, Green, and Hartnett, masters all, there’s something that just draws you into the telling and will not let you go. You are transported to this world that actually feels real because of the level of detail and development, even though you know no place like it ever existed. It’s dangerous and sexy and full of fascinating secrets. Who wouldn’t want to go on an adventure there? It’s built for exactly that.
PENNY DREADFUL premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.