Television series', like life, are so often more about the journey than the destination. It’s usually ground that’s been trod with TV, but that which surrounds the path determines whether or not the trek is compelling and worthwhile.
It isn't that networks haven’t been recycling or rehashing stories year in and year out, but of late we’ve televised adaptations of three films about uncontrollable evil, as well as two more supernatural shows derived from famed source material.
‘Fargo,’ ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ have all found their way from the silver screen to the small one, lengthening a narrative to what were acclaimed or noteworthy films; only ‘Fargo’ has been novel. Meanwhile, WGN America’s first original scripted (and already renewed) series ‘Salem’ is an uncomfortably perverse alteration of documented events and with some nods to Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible.’
Now there is ‘Penny Dreadful,’ a Showtime series ripped from a variety of literary sources itself, but so realized with refreshing imagination and the talents of impeccable cast and crew. It both respects its origins, while offering something new and indeed gripping, making it both compelling and worthwhile.
So-called Penny Dreadfuls were fictional publications in Britain that circulated in the 19th century featuring lurid and eerie tales (Sweeney Todd was one of many characters crafted at this time). Thus with the series ‘Penny Dreadful,’ created by John Logan (‘Skyfall’), we return to a dark and dreary Victorian London where a group of intrepid humans battle with demons.
It’s a mash-up of sorts with the stories of famous characters from noted literary sources. We will meet Dorian Gray later on, maybe an iconic vampire, and several others familiar figures, directly or indirectly. It’s like ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,’ just far darker and more nuanced.
The first episode, “Night Work,” begins unfortunately enough for a mother and daughter; the former is grabbed by something through a window, and it’s something so fierce that she’s gone in an instant. The latter, rattled by the clamor, explores and meets a similar fate.
An investigation is underway, and two mysterious figures are in need of some with particular talents. The beautifully haunting Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a woman’s whose confidence and stare seem enough to rival creatures that occupy the night, targets Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a cocky American gunslinger who travels with a troupe, earning less than modest pay while enjoying the local women and drink at each stop.
As it turns out, it’s not so much the night we’re traveling within, but a realm that exists behind the shadows or under the light or someplace esoterically bizarre and random like that. The audience may even be shocked by what is encountered; certainly Chandler is, but not enough to keep him from shooting first before later asking questions.
Some genuinely creepy demons and the like abound, as Ives, Chandler, and the other unknown benefactor pay a visit to the darker areas of an already seedy and atmospheric city. The third gent on this crusade is one Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), a figure who evokes 119th century fictional African adventurer Allan Quartermain. While perhaps like Quartermain in that he hunted big game while on safari, Murray is now seeking more vampiric predators, as well as the whereabouts of his abducted daughter (her name too is an allusion to timely literature).
There is much we don’t know about Murray, but one thing is to be sure: he’d “murder the world” to get his daughter back. Well then.
Chandler is recruited by Ives (who we also know very little about other than she dabbles in fortune telling and has adverse reactions to crosses), while Murray seeks a scientist. Actor Harry Treadaway doesn’t introduce his character officially until the end of the episode (I won’t say, and it’s unlikely you’re able to avoid teases, but it’s worth the payoff), yet he is another (attractive) inquisitor who studies the area “between life and death.”
By the end, this quartet has come together: the two recruits are compelled by that which cannot be unseen. That is, there are a couple exceedingly gruesome scenes that the audience may not be able to escape from either: we reconnect with the women from the opening.
It’s all so wonderfully satisfying from a storytelling perspective, as you have a wholly self-contained series already evolving with its own narrative, but one that also honors and includes such famed, beloved work. It’s as much fun watching the main story unfold as it is searching for references. On top of that, it looks to employ some incredibly expensive sets and production design, and there is no shortage of blood, violence, and horror – the sex is undoubtedly sure to come in the later episodes.
Green and Hartnett especially stand out; both actors have an aura around them, a sheer presence that makes them instantly captivating and a perfect fit for dabbling in such darkness (and yes, they’re attractive folk).
Their conversations, as a key one between Murray and Treadaway’s doctor, form a strong backbone to a pilot that starts what could be a lengthy series looking to mix a strong narrative with gorgeous cinematography and excesses of devilish delight (the aforementioned blood and sex) and plenty of scares.
Indeed, a chill goes right up your spine at the end the “Night Work.” Never mind you know exactly how the scene will progress and end; it’s all about the execution and the delivery, and it’s done to staggering perfection.
‘Penny Dreadful’ airs on Sundays at 9/8c on Showtime.