If you’re a member of Facebook then you’ve no doubt taken part in at least one of the many surveys that occasionally pop up in your News Feed. By giving answers to loaded questions geared towards a specific result, a member could figure out (for example) what Game of Thrones character the member would be. Or what state he or she would best be suited living in. Even going so far as determining what social group the member would best be suited for. If I took the latter survey and based the answers on my literary, cinematic, and musical tastes, I no doubt would be pegged as a Goth. Surprisingly though, I have not dyed my hair jet black… I would if I could find it. I like to dress casually (opting for a t-shirt and jeans) and resist wardrobe that makes me look like Lord Byron. I also tan (easily) in the Summer. And I have a sunny and optimistic disposition, with any residual bouts of melancholia kept soundly in check through the warm embrace of my 20 mg a day Lexapro prescription. Yet, still, the wicked allure that is all things Goth draws me like a moth to the flame. So when the Showtime Network released the first episode of its new cable TV series Penny Dreadful (which takes place in Victorian Era London…virtually the cultural capital of the Goth culture), a full two weeks before its May 11th première date, needless to say I couldn’t resist.
Created and produced by screenwriter John Logan ( Gladiator, The Aviator, and Skyfall and co-produced by Skyfall‘s director Sam Mendes, the series revolves around the character of Vanessa Ives (played by actress Eva Green). Ives, a spiritualist and medium, is currently in the employ of Sir Malcolm Murray. Murray, a renowned African explorer and who is played by 007 actor Timothy Dalton, is searching the London underworld for his missing daughter Mina (who fans of Bram Stoker’s work will no doubt recognize). To this end, Ives engages the services of American sharpshooter Ethan Chandler ( whom she meets while the latter is headlining in a traveling “Wild West Show” and is played by actor Josh Hartnett). There search results in a confrontation with a group of minions of the one who Murray refers to as “the Master”. When Sir Malcolm’s interrogation of these messengers goes south, Chandler quickly realizes that these strangers are something more than human. The encounter leaves Chandler shaken, but more intrigued than scared (owing to an penchant for dealing with violence, an much needed attribute Ive’s recognizes in the gunslinger). When the group dispatches a creature connected to the strangers, they quickly search London’s morgues for a medical examiner to perform an autopsy. Enter Victor Frankenstein (actor Harry Treadaway), a medical professional who is immersed in experiments that also skew towards the decidedly abnormal. As the search for Mina continues, Ives and company find themselves slowly descending into a twisted rabbit hole with Ives acting as their guide to this dark and unknown terrain.
Right off the bat, you know fans of comic scribe Alan Moore will make comparisons to this series and Moore’s and artist Kevin O’ Neill’s book, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Both works are set during the Victorian Era and include the appearance of many famous literary characters of that time. The difference, however, is in the group dynamics between the characters. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are formed by the office of British intelligence to deal with those threats that are beyond the English Parliament’s ability to deal with. The characters in Penny Dreadful are united in a single quest, however they are all solitary individuals with their own personal demons. If an example could be made then the League is to the X-men what Penny Dreadful is to Night Stalker.
The performances, across the board, are all stellar. Green ( hot off her commanding performance as Artemisia in 300: Rise of the Empire and soon to be seen as the titular femme fatale in director Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For ), strikes the right balance of tense mystery and seductiveness as Vanessa Ives. And Hartnett finds the humor in a showman who is not above using his “rugged” American gunslinger” persona to hook up with a good portion of London’s female population and the pathos in a man harboring a deep sense of guilt. And Dalton portrays Sir Malcolm with a quiet tormented authority. The standout performance here, however, is Treadaway’s Victor Frankenstein. There’s a scene in the first episode where Sir Malcolm invites Frankenstein to the famed Explorer’s Club for a drink, in order to recruit him as a medical consultant for the group. Frankenstein delivers a blistering diatribe, challenging Sir Malcolm’s notion of what truly constitutes an “explorer”. On one hand it is a passionate defense of “fringe science” and on the other it offers a glimpse of the obsessive madness that will eventual consume novelist Mary Shelley’s most famous creation. Future episodes will highlight writer Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray (played by Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark‘s lead, Reeve Carney).
The TV series derives its name from serialized British publications that were popular back in the 19th century. These “penny dreadfuls” were known for their sensational and lurid story lines, with each part costing no more than a penny. They were considered a cheap alternative to the more mainstream novels, including the works of Charles Dickens. However, there is nothing cheap about the production value of this wonderfully executed entry to Showtime Network’s spring lineup.
5 out of 5
Check out the trailer…
Check you local listings or go to Showtime and get the broadcast details…