Sunday, May 11, 2014

Pilot Review: Penny Dreadful

Penny Dreadful (Sundays at 10:00 Showtime; Premieres May 11)

Consider this fair warning: Penny Dreadful is about to be the newest show your friends and acquaintances will flood your news feed with every Sunday night. With The Walking Dead on hiatus, Penny Dreadful is swooping in to claim the title of "horror show you must tweet/post about, right after you get done tweeting/posting about Game of Thrones." It's the same type of well-shot, overblown, gory, but only vaguely interesting show as The Walking Dead.

The most obvious problem with Penny Dreadful is that creator John Logan (multiple Oscar nominee for Gladiator, Hugo, and T, he Aviator) isn't all that concerned with telling a story. By the end of the first hour, there are only threads of a potential plot present, a collection of mysterious characters with just a small idea of what they're doing together. British explorer Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) is looking for his daughter, Mina (yes, that Mina, from Bram Stoker's Dracula), who was taken in the night. He's assembling a group to journey into the dark places of Victorian London in search of the demon who stole his child away. Among those characters are Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), an American Wild West actor; Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a mysteriously dark and strong woman; Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), who needs no introduction; and, sometime after the pilot, Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). What they're going to do, and why they all need to be gathered into a kind of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen-by-way-of-Van Helsing is unclear, other than because Logan thinks it's pretty damn cool.

And "cool" is probably the word that you will be seeing and hearing over and over the night-of and morning-after to describe Penny Dreadful. It's a gorgeously realized recreation of Victorian times, with some modern sensibilities, with some great cinematography and costumes. And the script is smartly written and directed (by Spanish film director J.A. Bayona) to take advantage of the audience's desire for scares and surprises; there's a fair amount of gore, but the more memorable moments come from tried-and-true horror tricks, like heavily focusing on a character in the foreground of a wide shot so we look at what's happening over his shoulder, or focusing on one thing that's moving so we don't see the jump-scare coming from the stillness to the side. It's not groundbreaking filmmaking, but it's cool.

The show is also helped by its cast. Penny Dreadful belongs to Eva Green's Vanessa Ives. She's a terrifying, strange presence, and she tears apart the elegant scenery with just a cold stare more than once in the pilot. There's an element of campy melodrama to her performances as well, particularly in a scene where she reads Ethan's fortune via tarot cards, that really hammers home the odd tone Penny Dreadful is going for. Whereas other actors take the material either deathly serious (Treadaway, Dalton) or totally camp (Simon Russell Beale, in a cameo as an over-the-top Egyptologist), Green finds the balance that the show itself seems to be seeking. The other performances are universally good, my favorite coming from Treadaway late in the episode as Frankenstein explains to Murray why studying biology is more important than geography and any other science, but none match Green's intensity and dramatic flair.

In other words, all the pieces are there to make Penny Dreadful a really good series. It's got a fun concept of joining together a bunch of classic gothic characters against a really attractive Victorian backdrop. There are some creepy shots, some gore, some nudity, some good performances... all of which is fine and makes for an easy summer distraction. I just wish there was more to it, or at least that there was a stronger plot. Then again, what is to be expected when a show is named after cheesy, salacious serials? So far Penny Dreadful is in-line with its title inspiration: long on flash and short on substance.

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