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TV Review: Showtime’s New Gothic Drama ‘Penny Dreadful’

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Showtime’s newest scripted drama is a costumer set in late 19th Century called Penny Dreadful. “Penny dreadfuls” were Victorian-era sensational fictions, serialized for the masses. Showtime’s take, set in the 1890s is Gothic horror, complete with monsters, steamy, narrow London streets, a mysterious spiritualist, and a wealthy, brooding explorer with a missing daughter. Enter an American sharpshooter touring Europe as the lone survivor of Custer’s last stand, a missing child and corpses protected by exoskeletons and covered with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, and you have Penny Dreadful.Penny Dreadful, Showtime

It is truly a delight to see Timothy Dalton playing the brooding Sir Malcolm , trying to find his daughter, “taken.” By whom or what, we do not know, and that mystery seems to form the premise of the new series. To find her, Sir Malcolm and his associate/friend/confidant Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) engage said American sharpshooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) as muscle. But they are clearly going to need more than muscle as the trio believe they’ve found where the missing daughter might be found. They do not find her, but what they do find is horrifying, and the perfect stuff of Gothic horror–and penny dreadfuls.

Hints of vampirism, and hosts of other “undead” lurk in the dark, dank cellar beneath an opium den, and although Sir Malcom and Ethan manage to destroy these supernaturally evil dudes, we know (as do they) there are many more residing beneath London’s busy streets. They manage to cart away one of the corpses, bringing it to a laboratory where anatomists and surgeons are busy at work preparing limbs for medical school students. It is more slaughterhouse than laboratory, but there they find one young, arrogant “researcher” who is quite disinterested, until he actually examines the body. And what he finds is shocking them all. But the young man is on to something quite on his own as well, and how that factors into the story, I might only guess.

Penny Dreadful is beautifully shot and costumed; the settings of post Jack-the-Ripper London are evocative. The acting is great, if occasionally a bit over the top. Green as the mysterious Vanessa Ives appears as frail and corpse-like as we know she is not. This is a strong, resolute woman, and she clearly has a secret, well kept with her mate Sir Malcolm. Dalton was born to play the brooding Victorian with a secret life. (His Edward Rochester in the BBC Jane Eyre has never been bettered, and of course no one has ever played the brooding James Bond of Ian Fleming’s novels quite as literarily on the mark.) Hartnett is well cast as the cocky American who is quickly near out of his depth.

I’m intrigued by the pilot, and I’m curious, especially, about the relationship between Ives and Sir Malcolm, and how that is all tied into the disappearance of the daughter. The series creators promise Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, and assorted characters out of the Dracula legend. Episode one introduces one of these iconic characters from 19th Century literature, and I’m anxious to learn how they will fit into the overarching danse macabre of Penny Dreadful. 

The series airs Sunday nights at 10:00 ET on Showtime.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • Lam Nguyen

    Looking forward to the show and how the story will unfold. So excited right now. Thanks for the article.