Image A Sound A Extras C
"Night Work," "Séance," "Resurrection," "Demimonde," "Closer Than Sisters," "What Death Can Join Together," "Possession," "Grand Guignol"
by Bryant Frazer One of the hallmarks of contemporary remix culture is derivative artistic ventures that seek shortcuts to the id, making a playful, self-aware succotash of genre tropes in lieu of inventing new cosmologies. Cleverly done, the approach can yield brainy ruminations on form and content along the lines of Alan Moore's Watchmen or alternate-universe joyrides like Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds. When the endeavour is shabby and commercial, executed with no love, you end up with smug mediocrities like The Cabin in the Woods or smarmy trash like Dracula Untold. (Nobody--not George Lucas, not Ridley Scott--seems to grok less about what made the original properties they're trying to exploit great in the first place than the fools charged with revitalizing the monster franchises at Universal.) Somewhere in the middle, you get a project like "Penny Dreadful", a monster mash-up set in late-Victorian London that earns no originality points for series creator John Logan, best known for his screenwriting credits on Hugo, Skyfall, and Rango. Named after the pulpy serial publications that sold in old London for a penny each, his show is even more specifically derivative of latter-day pastiches like Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Kim Newman's Anno Dracula than it is of their own 19th-century sources. Still, at its best, his knock-off has an engaging flamboyance that makes it, if not must-see TV, at least agreeable popcorn drama.
The biggest problem with this eight-episode first season is pacing. Simply put, it peaks early. The first two episodes have an unhurried but ominous atmosphere that compels attention. The apparent leads are fresh creations: The striking and self-possessed Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) hangs with an older, distinguished-looking father figure named Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), and the two of them recruit New World sharpshooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) as a hired gun to help them scour the English underworld for Malcolm's kidnapped daughter, Mina Murray. If you recognize that name, you'll be unsurprised to learn that Mina is being held captive by vampires. Moreover, the doctor who performs an autopsy on a dead bloodsucker is Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), so you just know he has his own science project cooking in a secret lab somewhere in town. That young-looking dude with the Final Fantasy haircut is named Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), so he will be our resident libertine. (How is Dr. Jekyll nowhere to be found? Is he hiding in the shadows with Sweeney Todd? Well, there's always season two.)
As it turns out, the search for Mina is a classic MacGuffin. Sure, it drives the story, but the more pressing concern throughout this inaugural season is the spiritual status of Miss Ives, who appears to be possessed by the spirit of the Egyptian goddess Amunet. Because of this, she is pursued by Amunet's boyfriend, Amun-Ra, who has the power to bring on the apocalypse if the two are ever reunited. Of these stakes, Vanessa remains blissfully unaware. (As the show's resident Egyptologist puts it, "Who wants to know they're hunted by the devil?") Anyway, in episode 1.2, "Séance," Vanessa finds herself at a party where the renowned Madame Kali (Helen McCrory) inadvertently brings her demon roaring to life. The script calls for possession, and Green embraces the challenge with wild abandon. Eyes wide, panting, her lips flapping a mile a minute and her face lit to emphasize its bony contours, she snarls across the round séance table at Murray, spitting explicit and obscene accusations in the personae of his dead son and absent daughter. The scene climaxes with Green clambering onto the table on all fours, then standing erect, shouting towards the ceiling in the Bantu language of Lingala as her body bends into the back-breaking, devil-inside-me curve popularized by recent PG-13 horror fare like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Last Exorcism. While the use of that particular effect is a little tired, Green's commitment is awe-inspiring. It's a tour de force.
This, only minutes after we watched Dorian Gray romance a consumptive streetwalker who coughed up blood on his face during intercourse. This, on a show that has already seen a pissing woman snatched from atop a toilet by a monster that proceeded to tear her and her terrified young daughter to pieces. This, in an episode that climaxes as the air of homoerotic longing between Victor and his delicate monster (of course there's a Frankenstein's monster) is punctured and deflated by...well, I suppose it's bad form to spoil everything. In its first two hours--both of them directed by Juan Antonio Bayona (well-known among genre buffs for his 2007 Spanish-language feature The Orphanage), edited by Bernat Vilaplana (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy II: The Golden Army) and featuring elegant, intricate lighting by cinematographer Xavi Giménez (2012's Red Lights, Los Sin Nombre)--"Penny Dreadful" is a show that just goes for broke. I'd hesitate to call it scary, exactly, but it is certainly bloody, sexy, and vulgar. At the same time, a lot of it is pretty dull. Yet when it does occasionally roar to life, it makes you believe anything could happen--and that makes for pretty good television.
Bayona set the tone for the whole series, but there is a decline in momentum after he departs. Three more directors--Brit-TV stalwarts Coky Giedroyc, James Hawes, and Dearbhla Walsh--take a shot at two episodes apiece, and none of them are as sure-footed or engaging as the first two. To be fair, I suspect the pilot and its follow-up had a more generous production budget than the remaining instalments. Still, some of the imbalance comes down to content. Bayona got to have the fun of dealing with the different character reveals, and Logan, who wrote every episode, frontloaded the series with the most lurid material, leaving more time for necessary character development later on. The story reaches a focused climax early on, then spends too much time meandering and catching its breath. Highlights of the much looser latter portion of the series are in episode 1.5, Giedroyc's "Closer Than Sisters," which is built around an extended flashback that explains how Murray and Ives became fellow travelers. It gives the show a welcome sunlit respite from its typically gloomy London-after-dark soundstage photography before plunging us back into darkness. ("Something whispered," Vanessa says of her first, voyeuristic encounter with adult sexuality. "I listened.") And the penultimate episode, Hawes's "Possession," is solid, finally reckoning with Ives's ordeal in harrowing physical detail. Despite the arrival on the scene of an actual exorcist, the story, shot with an austere, nearly-monochromatic colour palette, feels more like an addiction narrative than the modern Satanic-possession thrillers it's also modeled on, and Green remains marvellous in the performance. I found myself feeling genuinely worried about our Ms. Ives.
However, whenever "Penny Dreadful" is not focused on the Murray-Ives relationship (and therefore elevated by Green's bravura turn), it's less than riveting. Brief encounters with the vampires feel repetitive and unenlightening. Despite the requisite pay-cable softcore asides, the show fails to satisfactorily convey Gray's omnisexual allure, nor does it give us so much as a peek at the magical portrait that keeps him weirdly young. Aside from pointed and repeated hints that the American gunslinger harbours a dark secret, Hartnett's character seems awkwardly grafted onto the story, serving mainly to keep his girlfriend (Billie Piper, again cast as a prostitute after her starring role in
"Secret Diary of a Call Girl") in the picture--for reasons that become evident before too long. And Logan's appropriation of the Parisian Grand guignol, relocating the famed theatre of grotesque violence to London, is a tease. The theater's bloody productions never mesh with the plot's violent goings-on, even when Frankenstein's lovesick stitch-job, here dubbed Caliban (Rory Kinnear), gets a job as a stagehand. Too, despite a nicely underplayed turn by Kinnear that triangulates the character's intelligence, sadness, and overall creepiness, Caliban's overly familiar existential predicament (loneliness, basically, plus the pain of rejection) takes up plenty of screentime while failing to generate the pathos Logan seems to expect.
Watch The Grand Budapest Hotel or Guardians of the Galaxy, and you'll get a sense of their creators' emotional lives--you learn something about how Wes Anderson and James Gunn feel about the genre tropes their films appropriate, and how much these borrowed narratives mean to them. You can slog through all seven-plus hours of "Penny Dreadful" without getting a sense that Logan has any particular emotional involvement in or new ideas about these classic horror stories (the vampire hiding from the light, the manmade pariah feeling the sting of unrequited affection) beyond the underlying assumption that the world is a cold and lonesome place and it behoves us to take love and friendship where we can get it. Logan, an openly gay man, has said that he feels a kinship with his monsters, whose identities, sexual and otherwise, are intertwined with secrets that mark them as ineluctably different from those around them.
But of all "Penny Dreadful"'s characters, only the fierce and transgressive Vanessa lives up to that billing. Sometimes she does and says terrible things--and sometimes Green has a twinkle in her eye at those moments. She knows she's a freak, and even though it's not her choice--it's something that was forced on her, and now lives inside her--she kind of gets off on it. The season finale is dubbed "Grand Guignol," and I can't say it lives up to that promise of spectacular bloodshed. It does at last resolve some tension between Vanessa, the vulnerable, magnetic locus of Weird London, and Malcolm, the gruff surrogate father who claims to care little for her. It sets the stage for a very different Season Two and, in a pointed coda, explicitly acknowledges how dangerously but enticingly unhinged Green's character really is. I'm not sure "Penny Dreadful" is an especially good program, though as long as Eva Green is playing this role, I don't think I'll be able to stop watching it.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The Blu-ray edition of "Penny Dreadful" is a perfectly adequate package, presenting the story so far in a superlative 1.78:1, 1080p transfer that far outstrips the highly-compressed feed from your cable provider. "Penny Dreadful" looked pretty good on its original airing, but the BD image better preserves the finest details of the period costumes and production design. The show was photographed with the ARRI Alexa digital camera, and an exceptionally fine layer of not-unpleasant digital noise is visible in some shots. As usual, the 5.1 audio mix (here encoded to Dolby TrueHD) is much more robust on disc, expanding the dynamic range beyond what the original telecast allowed and making more aggressive use of the surround channels.
Although the A/V quality is fine, this is no prestige release. Extras are limited to a series of nine "Video Production Blogs" originally created for the web. Most of them run slightly longer than two minutes and fleetingly cover a single aspect of the show's production and/or the historical period being depicted. Taken together, they offer about 22 minutes' worth of talking-head interviews and B-roll with contributors, including Logan, supervising producer Chris King, set decorator Philip Murphy, production designer Jonathan McKinstry, and fast-talking historian Matthew Sweet. It's pretty superficial stuff, but there are some worthwhile tidbits to be gleaned; I was impressed to learn that the show's Grand Guignol theatre was actually a set built from scratch rather than a location, and Barts Pathology Museum will be on my itinerary should I find myself in London. And I suppose Showtime could be lauded for sparing us the usual back-slapping EPK fodder as the actors discuss the abiding respect they hold for their colleagues and the showrunner marvels at the phenomenal talents of the many collaborators who laboured to bring his vision to the screen. The only other added feature is a pair of "Ray Donovan" episodes that pad out this set to three discs; I suspect anyone buying this first season of "Penny Dreadful" would prefer that it had been presented on two platters, without that dubious bonus.