Note: While in later reviews I will give a more detailed recap, this first episode review will talk about the production overall so as not to give anything away for those who are on the fence about watching the show but do not want anything spoiled.
Showtime’s horror mashup series continues the new trend of an entire season of TV scripted by one individual. The culprit as far as Penny Dreadful is concerned is John Logan, the screenwriter of Gladiator, Hugo, Skyfall, and many other well-regarded modern films. The benefit of having an entire season of TV written by one individual is the ability to maintain a fluid vision. The normal model of television writing is tried and true, and I have no intentions of impugning it, however shows like True Detective, Fargo, and now Penny Dreadful are in a particularly unique position to tell one long story over the course of a certain number of episodes. 8 is the magic number for this first season of TV, and if this first episode is anything to go by Showtime has a new show to be proud of.
Penny Dreadful is pulp through and through. The term Penny Dreadful itself refers to cheap, trashy, sexy serial novels published in the 19th century, and it makes for an evocative title for a TV show indeed. Produced by the great Sam Mendes, the show jumps immediately into the dark, dingy corners of Victorian England with a startling opening that suggests that this show is not playing around, at least as far as horror is concerned. With titles like Hannibal, American Horror Story, The Walking Dead, True Blood, and even Supernatural excelling in popularity on TV, if you want to do horror in this current climate you have to go for it. Penny Dreadful goes for it. Throughout the 50 minutes of this premiere episode there are shocking acts of violence and horror that would make even the most hardened “horrorphile” gleeful. As our narrative progresses and we go darker and deeper into a particular underground of Victorian England, we are laid witness to imaginative and stunning ideas and creations of a very sick creative mind.
Complimenting all of this horror is the show’s style. The first season of Penny Dreadful will have 4 directors, with each individual directing 2 in a row, however it is always the job of the pilot director to set the tone and the “rules” for the way a series is filmed. That job here belongs to J.A. Bayona, director of one of the best modern horror films The Orphange, and his work is elegant, dense, moody, and surprising. No aspect of this first episode actually feels like TV (the budget must be quite large), and Bayona’s camera moves and reveals lend integrity to some of the more outlandish elements. The production design and sets are detailed and immaculately filthy, layered with odds and ends and interesting things to look at. Every frame of this show is a visual delight. The score by Abel Korzeniowski is dripping in atmosphere and personality, with lush strings and dissonant noises that manage to chill. This is a gorgeous first episode, but gorgeous in that horrific, delicious, decadent way. And yes, steampunk fans, that aesthetic is present here.
The cast that has been assembled is excellent, with Timothy Dalton reminding us that he is an actor of terrific command and grace and I suspect that as the show progresses his “Sir Malcolm” will prove to have increasingly unexpected layers and secrets. Similarly, Eva Green relishes playing offbeat roles and her work as “Vanessa Ives,” an icy and compelling psychic, is strong. Josh Hartnett, the almost completely forgotten heartthrob from the early 2000s, is actually quite good as an American sharpshooter in London on a sort of “Wild Wild West” tour, and as he gets roped into Sir Malcolm and Vanessa’s plot (via the “night work” mentioned in the title) Hartnett shows a certain level of charisma and cool that I’m not sure he ever has before. Maturity and time can do wonders to an actor. The other actor to make a major impression in this pilot is Harry Treadaway, who delivers fantastic monologues and has a lovely eccentric quality about him. Other series regulars Reeve Carney and Billie Piper do not appear in the first episode.
I am keeping the show’s secrets close to the chest, as I mentioned above, and I cannot wait to discuss the final reveal in my review of episode 2. It gives hint as to just what Logan’s intentions are here, and I think it would be remiss not to mention at least superficial similarities to Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. That being said, Penny Dreadful is its own creation, a scary and sexy bit of pulp that compelled my senses and tickled my mind. If this first episode (and likely the entire series) isn’t riddled with deep subtext or thoughtful thematic material, it is no matter because the show makes its intentions clear right from the title. I look forward to taking this violent and very cool ride over the next 7 episodes; this may prove to be the perfect summer companion.