Every year near Halloween, I make a pilgrimage to Universal Studios Orlando for their annual Halloween Horror Nights. Much more than your standard haunted house experience, the intoxicating and gory event frightens by using all of the senses to transport you to specific times and places. Well-trained actors jump at you from dark corners and from behind objects in unexpected ways. This past year, I was able to walk through The Walking Dead’s Woodbury, the English moors of An American Werewolf in London, and the titular cabin from Cabin in the Woods. Each experience feels brilliantly authentic… and scary as hell.
That’s what it feels like to watch Showtime’s new series Penny Dreadful.
Set in post-Ripper Victorian London, the show’s actors flow in and out of some of the most beautiful and intricate set pieces I’ve seen on TV. One scene takes the actors from a Chinese Opium den into a subterranean vampire layer littered with bodies in various states of decomposition. Another features mother and daughter in a dark apartment lit only by kerosene lamp. There are monsters and monstrous humans. All of it favorably recalling the Victorian-era madness of Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Hughes Brothers’ From Hell.
Written by John Logan (The Aviator, Hugo, and the upcoming Jersey Boys) and designed as a tight 8-episode series, Penny Dreadful initially features aristocrat Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), seer Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), and American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) as lost souls uniting to find Murray’s missing daughter. If you know your Victorian literature, then you’ll recognize at least one famous last name. Logan has a passion for literature of the period (the title refers to the lurid serials of the 19th century), and he weaves together new and classic characters deftly.
The actors are all fine, but their purpose is to serve Logan’s intricately plotted story. The pilot establishes the basic threads, but, at the episode’s end, you’re left feeling the story is going to exponentially grow with each episode. The British actors seem born to this material, but I do surprisingly applaud Hartnett’s restrained and mannered performance. He won’t win any awards, but he exudes the right mixture of American bravado masking inner insecurities.
Admittedly, I am a sucker for material of this type. I have loved two seasons of American Horror Story, and I painfully endured all 10 episodes of Hemlock Grove. Penny Dreadful is the real thing, though, thanks to Logan’s top-notch storytelling and the incredible visuals that feel inspired by art in the greatest of graphic novels. One scene that springs to mind is a classic usage of lighting to reveal a character’s face but shield his eyes in shadows in almost a painterly manner.
My biggest complaint with the series so far (granted, I’m only one episode in) is that it doesn’t air on Netflix where I could binge-watch it. I want to consume the show in mass quantities, revel in its secrets, and imagine myself strolling gingerly down its foggy, perilous streets.
The fact that it so clearly left me wanted more is a very good sign. I’ll leave it to you to discover its secrets all on your own.
Penny Dreadful debuts Sunday, May 11 on Showtime.