“Penny dreadful” was a term coined in the late 19th century to describe extremely cheap “literature” which would appeal to the masses on the basest possible levels. Scandalously raunchy sexual content, prolific violence, and the most simplistic of plots were par for the course. Those first two types share a lot with the modern cable dramas which have grown so popular that they are now pushing the limits of what was once considered decent to air on television. Some approach their material with an air of class and high storytelling craft (Breaking Bad, Mad Men), others toe the line between intellect and smut with varying degrees of success (Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead), and some merely hide behind the façade of drama while being little different from those old one-cent novels. Enter the appropriately titled Penny Dreadful, which premiered Sunday on Showtime.
Set in London during the 1890s, the show follows a group of individuals attempting to tackle a who’s who of 19th-century gothic horror lurking in the city’s underworld. And that’s about all the show cares to tell before plunging the viewer straight into that underworld. Within 15 minutes, we follow American gun-for-hire Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) as he’s dragged by his mysterious benefactors into fistfights with vampires with only the cryptic warning: “Do not be amazed at anything you see, and don’t hesitate.” This may as well be the show runners’ final message to the audience before taking the plunge. In other words, “just go with it.”
Sure enough, mere minutes later we’re treated to Dr. Victor Frankenstein (yes, that Dr. Frankenstein, played here by Harry Treadaway) performing an autopsy on a recently killed vampire, which reveals a layer of tattoos beneath the skin bearing Egyptian hieroglyphics transcribing a spell designed to bring about the end of the world. It’s that kind of show.
Don’t get me wrong—it can all be great fun. It becomes very clear within the first two episodes that the show is not taking itself terribly seriously. There are as many cheap thrills to be had as in any of those original penny dreadfuls, from the supernatural horrors to the perverse sex which has survived on television to this day. Surprisingly, in spite of these sex scenes, Penny Dreadful shies away from nudity far more than most of its contemporary cable dramas, but more than makes up for it with an extra helping of that other staple of basic TV viewer-bait: copious blood and gore.
We are treated to vampire stabbings, bloodied bodies heaped upon one another, vampire dissections, the disemboweled remains of serial killer victims, other kinds of dissections, and a tuberculosis-themed sex scene. Don’t think too hard about that last one.
There is plenty of interesting source material to draw upon for this show’s future, of course. The aforementioned Dr. Frankenstein and his famous monster look to feature prominently in the show, and the writers have also resurrected the less famous but no less interesting Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) from Oscar Wilde’s well-regarded novel. These two inclusions set a precedent that allows the show to introduce any figure from 19th-century gothic horror that happens to be in the public domain. Online cast listings mention Mina Harker, the lead character from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see werewolves, Van Helsing, the ghost of Jack the Ripper, or even Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter.
In spite of all this dressing, Penny Dreadful ultimately wants the audience to be connected to its cast of original characters, a tall order in an already overpopulated Edwardian London. In addition to Chandler, the show is headlined by Vanessa Ives and Sir Malcolm Murray, played by the talented but underemployed Eva Green and Timothy Dalton, respectively. Sir Murray’s motives are fairly clear; he wants to rescue his missing daughter from vampires by any means necessary. Ives’s are less clear-cut; her highlight of the series so far was a bizarre 10-minute-long (at least it felt that long) possession scene at a séance gone wrong, where she lambasts Dalton in the most over-the-top manner imaginable. It was very fitting with the tone of the show thus far.
These two actors share an odd connection with show creator, John Logan, through the James Bond franchise: Logan penned the most recent installment Skyfall, Green played one of the more memorable love interests in Casino Royale, and Dalton took a turn as one the least memorable men to play Bond himself before Pierce Brosnan took over. The result is a group of underappreciated talents attempting to carve out featured roles in careers that have frequently seen them fall just outside the edge of the brightest spotlights. Based on what we’ve seen so far, it doesn’t look like a good bet that they’ll get anything other than cheap thrills out of it. And nor will the viewers.