As a man with a Bachelor's degree in English, I obviously have a bit of experience in literature. By far my favorite literature is British, with my favorite period being the Victorian Era. Therefore, anything set in that era is sure to catch my eye. Include characters from the literature of that era and you've pretty much sold me. From Sam Mendes and John Logan, Showtime's latest series Penny Dreadful taps into quite a few of my literary interests, but is it worth the watch?
Premise: In 1891 London, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a gunslinger in a traveling Wild West show, finds himself lured into a new line of work. At the behest of Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), Ethan is invited to assist in an investigation for the disappearance of Malcolm's daughter. Little does Ethan know that the investigation will take him to some of the darkest parts of English society, and a run in with some of the most horrific creations from Victorian literature.
Here are some brief thoughts on the pilot episode...
8 Things to Like
1. Solid Cast - This may be the most surprising aspect of a series starring Josh Hartnett, but the cast surrounding this series is actually pretty strong. Perhaps it helps that Hartnett's performance is anchored by Timothy Dalton and Eva Green, but the typically mediocre Hartnett steps up his game in this series. The pilot also has the promise of a pretty strong supporting cast as well.
2. Intriguing Mystery - While there are some things about this show's central story to dislike (more on that in a bit), the mystery surrounding Murray's daughter has more than a few intriguing elements. Those more steeped in British Lit will undoubtedly connect who Murrary's daughter is, especially once her name is mentioned. Nevertheless, the connection between Egyptian mythology and vampires should be interesting to see unfold.
3. Unique Character Designs - Call it a small budget or call it creativity, but Penny Dreadful is quite visually engaging with its characters as well as other imagery. There is certainly some gore to throw around, but subtlety seems to be the name of the game on a few fronts (at least for now). The design of the vampires is an interesting mix of the unexpected and the familiar.
4. Engaging Visuals - Victorian England is one of the most interesting times in Britain's history in terms of a visual. It is also an image most audiences are quite familiar with. Mendes and Logan take advantage of that here, offering visuals which, at times, border on the grotesque. Considering the Victorians' obsession with everything macabre, however, this makes sense.
5. Excellent Camera Work - This may be something those more mastered in the art of cinematography may disagree with me on, but some of the camera angles in this pilot are fascinating. At times we get uncomfortably close to the characters, but then others we are at a distance from the horror. It is a slightly disorienting effect that works in the series' favor.
6. References to Victorian Literature - As this is one of the key draws of the series, it was obviously important for Logan and Mendes to get this aspect right. While they may not be as thorough with their references as Alan Moore, enough things are hinted at here to satisfy fans. One Jack the Ripper reference feels a bit too strong in the wink and nudge department, but overall it is easy to get the sense that our small cast is in a much larger world.
7. Horror Elements - Much like the visuals, the horror elements of the series definitely keep themselves subtle. This part takes a walk into much more expected territories, but it is the more aforementioned subtle moments that really help to give the creep factor.
8. Victor Frankenstein - Played by relative unknown Harry Treadaway, Victor Frankenstein is our first main character to come from Victorian fiction. You know pretty early on who the man is, even though they save the official reveal for the very end. Treadaway plays this rather young version of the good doctor impeccably well. One speech in particular about the futility of other sciences in comparison to his own is a brilliant medley of Logan's words and Treadaway's acting. Victor will definitely be the most exciting character to watch grow as the series goes on.
2 Things to Dislike
1. Cliches - The biggest danger when setting your story in all too familiar territory is how to avoid cliche. Penny Dreadful does its best to be unique, but there are a bit too many elements in this story which feel expected. A few cliches can be fine, especially if the events surrounding them are at least somewhat unique. The series does not do much to make the expected unexpected, but it's not a big enough sin to lose all hope just yet.
2. Similarities to Alan Moore - Perhaps the greatest and most known work to explore this type of story is Alan Moore's series of graphic novels, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Unfortunately, the similarities between Penny Dreadful and that comic are a bit too close for comfort in this pilot, particularly since much of the story has a "getting the gang together" feeling. This is not necessarily a bad thing just yet. If you are going to imitate something, at least you're going for something good. Penny Dreadful also does a few things to make it stand away from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but the series is going to have to move much further in the opposite direction if it wants to avoid the comparison.
3 Things Which Need to Improve
1. Make the Series Unique - As previously mentioned, there are quite a few things which Penny Dreadful does to try and make itself unique in this specific genre, but there are still improvements which need to be made. Alan Moore may have written the definitive work on how to blend Victorian literary characters, but that doesn't mean Penny Dreadful can't do some new things with the concept. The Egyptian angle we are hinted with in the pilot is one example of how that uniqueness can be obtained.
2. Be Less Claustrophobic - Victorian England was a beautiful, industrial sight to behold. You know what we get in this series? Absolutely none of that. Sure, the sets look VERY Victorian, but it would seem the constrained budget Logan and Mendes are working with is seriously keeping them from expanding the look of this world. Everyone is either cramped into houses, streets, or other various locations. A little room to breath and a little showing off of the things which make this such a fascinating time period would be great.
3. Make the Characters Interesting - While Penny Dreadful has a strong cast backing it up, the writing of this pilot episode does not do too much to make these characters interesting as people. Victor Frankenstein may be the only exception as his character offers some changes from what we know from literature and film. Other than that, John Logan seems to hope that your main draw to these characters will be that they are quirky and off-beat. We get some hints about Ethan's past, but he is the only character given just a tiny bit of depth. Quirky works to get attention, but depth keeps the attention. We wouldn't want this series to become Tim Burton's Penny Dreadful.