Penny Dreadful (2014 - 2016)

Rated 18
Now TV
Spoiler Free

Horror-drama Penny Dreadful ran for three series/seasons between 2014 and 2016, with one additional spin off which I struggled to get to three episodes into. It's called City of Angels, if you're interested.

Penny Dreadful was created by writer John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo, Alien: Covenant) and produced by Showtime. The Victorian set mashup of the supernatural and salacious boasts a talented cast; Josh Hartnett is the big Hollywood name, but former 007 Timothy Dalton, Eva Green and Rory Kinnear, Simon Russell Beale and the late, great Helen McCrory are all excellent, as are many others*.

Showtime doesn’t have the name or reputation in the UK that HBO does, but it has a solid CV making entertaining, if not highbrow shows. Homeland, Dexter and the massively fun, Sopranos-lite, Ray Donovan are all Showtime productions. Penny Dreadful fits into roughly the same category of well presented and put together fun, albeit one with a dark and violent side which won’t be for everyone.

Penny Dreadfuls were ye-olde shlock literature, or rather comics, for the masses which featured lurid tales of beasts and murderers and these are what the show is loosely based on. Penny Dreadful is the kind of television "spiritualist" nutjob Aleister Crowley might watch if he was still alive. Let’s be thankful that he isn’t.

First point of note: It’s a bold move making it sound like your show is dreadful in its title, no matter the context. Second point of note: those comics were cheap rip offs of famous tales (Dracula, Frankenstein etc.), which technically makes Penny Dreadful derivative of the derivative. Just a thought.

Admittedly, Penny Dreadful is a show which is a little hard to engage with at first, the sprawling characters feel slightly disjointed, and frankly it’s a little slow. Almost as if it thinks it is more mysterious than it is. However there is enough intrigue and plenty of gore to keep one’s attention long enough to see it pick up, which it does. It stays there for the most part.

A little on the initial story set up without giving too much away. Doctor Frankenstein has fatherhood issues with his monster, and vice versa. Dorian Gray is shagging and drinking any and everything with the look of a man who grew bored of it all years ago. Josh Hartnett’s strange American gunslinger Ethan Chandler and Billie Piper’s sex worker Brona rotate around Eva Green’s mysterious Vanessa Ives and her search with Sir Malcom Murray for his daughter Mina.

No prizes for guessing who has hold of Mina.

As the stories tie together Penny Dreadful does pick up, and in places far exceeds the quality a show of its ilk has any right to be. This is thanks in part to the acting, and some excellent writing as well as a convincingly constructed environment, which remains steadfastly in England until the third season.

There’s lots of God talk, but in that sense it panders to both markets, like the characters you can believe in God or not. Neither position should affect your enjoyment. Other things might, but not the God delusion. The debate around the divine is apt for the setting, too; Victorians were obsessed with God and death. Sherlock Holmes writer Arthur Conan Doyle was hugely into the séance scene (alongside the aforementioned Crowley).

The illicit, sensational fascination with the macabre, mortality and beyond was not simply a guilty pleasure of the working class in Victorian England, it was an everyday obsession, not a subculture.

Not without its wobbles, at times holding the attention less than at others, Penny Dreadful is still a lot of fun. That the three seasons all have a different amount of episodes in them hints that Showtime were never fully convinced but Penny Dreadful boasts, in places, captivating drama, good action, sympathetic characters and malicious monsters. It all plays with expectations nicely and the score is also rather lovely.

Considering what it attempts to do, wiring legend, fiction and myth together in a contemporary Victorian London, Penny Dreadful should have lived up to its name. It should have been a cheap thrill, throwaway escapism and titillation. What it manages to achieve is far beyond the limits of its origins. Every aspect of Penny Dreadful’s production combined to be better than the sum of their parts. Like a certain monster.

Bedsit it?

A bit like From, if you enjoy a horror series then Penny Dreadful is probably for you. Pulpy as fuck with plenty of characters, gore and intrigue with the supernatural front and centre. An excellent easy horror watch. 8/10

*Clem Fandango is also in it!

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