Idiot Box: “Penny Dreadful”

“Penny Dreadful” On Showtime

Devin D. O'Leary
3 min read
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There’s little doubt Showtime’s new spookshow series “Penny Dreadful” steals its inspiration from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It is, after all, a historical horror/action series in which a host of literary characters (including Dr. Frankenstein and Dorian Gray) are united to fight supernatural crime in Victorian London. But since 2003’s cinematic adaptation of Alan Moore’s longtime comic book series was—shall we say—el stinko, a borrowing and retooling of the basic concept isn’t such a horrifying idea.

Our story starts with a bang as Wild West gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett,
Pearl Harbor) is recruited by sexy spiritualist Vanessa Ives (Eva Green, Casino Royale) and dapper explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (former James Bond Timothy Dalton) for a mysterious rescue mission. It involves a lot of skulking around in the dark and shooting mysterious creatures. (Well-read viewers will quickly realize that Sir Malcolm is the father of one Mina Harker, the protagonist of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.)

The series takes its sweet time getting the team together. Eventually, though, Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway,
Control), Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney, star of the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), a spirited Irish chick (Billie Piper from “Doctor Who”) and an African warrior (British TV actor Danny Sapani) will join the monster-mashing crew.

The cast racks up some impressive names, but there’s some measurable quality behind the camera as well. John Logan (
Skyfall, The Aviator, Gladiator) is the show’s creator/writer/director. Sam Mendes (the American Beauty director who worked with Logan on Skyfall) is its executive producer. A few bucks were dumped into the coffers, making everything on screen look considerably better than your average Syfy series. The cinematography is appropriately dark and gloomy. The show is filmed in Dublin, and the settings look accurate for time, place and mood. The occasional geyser of blood-spilling action keeps things from becoming too literary as our anti-heroes are called upon to dispatch vampires, zombies, mummies, demons and the like. Best of all, the pay cable location on Showtime allows producers to include a bit of sex and as many severed body parts as they like.

Given the purloined characters and fantastical subject matter, this series could easily have been a campy mess. (
Van Helsing, I’m looking at you!) But so far, the creators seem dead serious about the disparate supernatural elements, treating everything with po-faced sincerity. With its swashbuckling action and blood-soaked drama, “Penny Dreadful” captures the garish, grisly, serialized horror action of the cheap Victorian paperbacks from which its name is so appropriately cannibalized.

“Penny Dreadful” premieres Sunday, May 11, at 8pm on Showtime.

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