While Game of Thrones is getting all the late night Sunday/Monday morning buzz, there’s another fantasy genre show on rival network Showtime that is quietly building up quite the reputation at the exact same time. I’m talking about Penny Dreadful, John Logan and Sam Mendes’ mash-up of gothic horror fiction icons of the 19th century. I know what you’re thinking…didn’t they do that already in that awful movie LXG: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Well, yes, they did, but look at Penny Dreadful as LXG done right, and without Sean Connery acting badly or terrible special effects to ruin everything.
What makes Penny Dreadful so special? First off,There’s just something about seeing iconic characters all together – it’s why Avengers and Justice League work so well (in comics, at least), it’s why we paid money to see Freddy vs. Jason, and why Godzilla is ten times cooler fighting other monsters than just stomping on Tokyo. Penny Dreadful understands this, but instead of going the easy, cheesy route, they are making something meaningful out of what could just be glorified fan fiction. And with most of its first season already aired, If you haven’t see this show I say it’s high time you got on Showtime On Demand (or used your friend who has Showtime and use their TV) and get caught up. There are several reasons you should be checking out this show; here are but eight of them.
Oh, and if you ever visited gothic night clubs when you were younger, listened to lots of The Cure or Bauhaus, or go to “Bat’s Day” at Disneyland…then this show is for you, and you’ll probably eat it up with a spoon. You know who you are.
1. It Puts the “Gothic” Back in the Gothic Monsters
It seems the last decade or so of popular supernatural genre fiction has been all about taking the classic gothic monsters of the past and putting a modern spin on them. Vampires and werewolves are now the “boy next door”, as seen in things like Twilight, Teen Wolf, and the Vampire Diaries. These shows make it a point of pride to dust off the cobwebs and make the monsters relatable, and well…more ordinary. The impulse to go against the gothic cliche has become a cliche itself.
Well, Penny Dreadful is here to put the cobwebs back on, and I say it’s high time. The Victorian era is when these characters were born, and where much of their popular iconography comes from. Penny Dreadful takes the gothic trappings of these icons and instead of making fun of them in a detached ironic way, it owns them, and reminds the audience why these things held so much sway over popular culture in the first place.
2. Eva Freakin’ Green
Eva Green is one of those actresses who has been around for a while now, first making a name for herself first as 007’s doomed love interest Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, and most recently 300: Rise of an Empire. While she’s been more than decent enough in those movies, it’s on this show that Eva really just brings it.
With Penny Dreadful she really gets to show her acting chops as the elusive Vanessa Ives, a woman with a mysterious past that is at least somewhat supernatural. Is she a witch, a spirit medium, or what? We aren’t really sure, but It seems spirits and all other kinds of supernatural things are drawn to her, and it’s safe to assume it’s not just because she’s drop dead gorgeous. All I know is there is a scene in the second episode of the series where Miss Thang gets possessed by a spirit (or two) and it is one of the freakiest possession scenes since Linda Blair turned her head all the way around some forty years ago in The Exorcist. Miss Green is definitely the show’s MVP.
3. It Makes Dracula Scary Again
It’s been decades since the character of Dracula has been really scary to audiences; arguably since Nosferatu in 1922. Compelling and fascinating? Sure, but even Bela Lugosi, who personifies what we think of as the Count to this day, was more of a sex symbol in his time that something that gave people legit nightmares.As a culture, we love Dracula, but we’re just not really scared by him,
The creators of Penny Dreadful however, have found the perfect way to make Dracula scary again – by keeping him totally offscreen. In the first four episodes of the series, Dracula’s a fearsome presence who is only referred to as “the Master,” and who is personified by scary music and sound design. The only reason we even know it’s Dracula is because the show’s protagonists are searching for the missing Mina Murray (Dracula’s most famous victim from the classic novel) who has been taken by him. He’s never referred to by name, and yet everyone on the show is terrified of him, and our imaginations make him more terrifying by filling in the blanks. It’ll be hard to not make him disappointing eventually compared to what we might have envisioned at first, but for now he’s pretty damn scary.
4.Those Opening Credits
While the art of the opening credits is all but gone from network television in order to make room for more commercials, cable television has turned the opening credits for television shows into something of a true art form. You know that in our ADHD/Tivo addicted age, it says something when we almost never fast forward through the opening credits to shows like Game of Thrones or American Horror Story because they’re not only well done, but they quite literally help put us in the mood for what lies ahead. Penny Dreadful is no different, with a stunning ninety second sequence that evokes everything that’s the show is about through images and music.
5. The Production Value
Unlike HBO, who spend serious cash, Showtime shows tend to look a wee bit on the cheaper side. As good as shows like Dexter and Californication have been in the past, aside from their content, they could easily be regular network shows based on the way they’re filmed and edited. Penny Dreadful, on the other hand, is shot exquisitely. Look closely at everything from costumes to set design to make-up, and you can see where every one of those dreadful pennies was spent (I’m sorry, I had to.)
6. They’ve Got Some Bi-Sexy Action Happening
It seems the premium cable shows are always getting either praised or lambasted for having too much gratuitous sex and nudity, specifically shows like Game of Thrones, True Blood and Boardwalk Empire. Most of the sex and nudity on those shows tends to be of the strictly hetero kind, and although those shows have had prominent and high-profile gay characters (and should be applauded for it) we rarely see their sex lives shown in the same way as their straight counterparts. And when we do, those characters are almost always then promptly killed off (especially on True Blood and Game of Thrones. Of course, Game of Thrones kills off lots of people, but I digress.)
In the most recent episode of Penny Dreadful, we get to see pretty boy Dorian Gray, he with the aging portrait that’s locked away, and Josh Hartnett’s red-blooded American gunslinger character make out passionately. The show didn’t hang a lantern on how these two characters are bisexual; they just seemingly are. Although shows like True Blood and Game of Thrones have gay characters, they are almost never the main characters, and certainly don’t have their sex lives depicted with much frequency. Outside of Timothy Dalton’s character of Dr. Malcolm Murray, Hartnett and Reeve Carney are arguably the two other male leads of the series, so having them be bisexual and sexually active is a pretty big deal.
7. The Show Has Excellent Pedigree
This series just has a high-class pedigree, both behind and in front of the camera. The primary creative force behind this show is John Logan, who wrote The Aviator and Hugo for Martin Scorcese (and was nominated for an Academy award for both) as well as Skyfall for Sam Mendes, who is also a producer on this series. (Logan also wrote Star Trek: Nemesis, but hey, nobody’s perfect.) The first two episodes were directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, who’s the man behind the Spanish film The Orphanage, one of the creepiest horror films from the past decade.
As far as the acting talent goes, I’ve already mentioned Eva Green and how awesome she is on this show, but aside from her this series has an excellent ensemble cast; you’ve got former James Bond Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett (who, it turns out, has become quite a decent actor, and who, much like Dorian Gray, apparently doesn’t age much) David Warner as Van Helsing, and Harry Treadway as Victor Frankenstein. All things being equal, Penny Dreadful is a very classy affair, and a good way to feel better about your television viewing habits after binge-watching some awful guilty pleasure reality series that evokes the very opposite of talent. (Don’t feel bad, we all have at least one of those.)
8. There Is So Much Potential For the Future
Sure, the first season has already used characters and concepts from some of the most well known Victorian horror novels like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and
Poe’s Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, but that’s just scratching the surface of where they could go; there are the other 19th century vampires who inspired Dracula like Carmilla, Sir Francis Varney and Lord Ruthven,who was the star of the very first English language vampire story The Vampyre, not to mention Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man and many more. The show has already proven it can juggle all these characters and combine them into a coherent narrative, far more than LXG: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (I refer now to the hideous movie and not Alan Moore’s classic comic.) The sky’s the limit on this one.
Previously by Eric Diaz: