Review: Showtime's 'Penny Dreadful' does a literary monster mash-up
Showtime's new horror series "Penny Dreadful" is several recent creative devices rolled into one entertaining, if largely nonsensical, package. Like "True Detective" and "Fargo," it's a prestige cable series where all the episodes come from the same writer — in this case, John Logan ("Skyfall") — and in its early going is highlighted by some gorgeous and unconventional for television directing from J.A. Bayona ("The Orphanage"), though the first season will ultimately have four different directors. (Each of them directs two at a time.) And like "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (the great comic book, not the dumb movie), it takes characters and plot elements from multiple classics of English literature and places them into the same fantastical story.
Though Showtime has been unapologetic about revealing whom some of those characters are (the first episode, which premieres on Sunday night at 10, is already available on YouTube), some of their identities are clearly intended by Logan to be surprises. So I'll simply say that the the tale — set in London around the time of Jack the Ripper — involves vampires and other monsters, psychics, immortals, cowboys, intrepid explorers and other staples of both the high and low fiction of the era.
The core cast includes Timothy Dalton as a wealthy and powerful man searching for his missing daughter, Eva Green as a medium who assists him, Josh Hartnett as a gunslinger in a traveling Wild West show, Billie Piper as a tubercular prostitute, and Harry Treadaway as a doctor who gets tangled up in the search. It's an impressive cast — Dalton and Green are among the better pure thespians to ever fill their respective roles in a James Bond film — and the European actors(*) play their parts with relish, but also with an impressive degree of control, so that "Penny Dreadful" never descends into camp. There's a sequence in the second episode, for instance, where Green is possessed during a seance, and she gleefully chews several acres' worth of scenery in the playing of it, but the moment the encounter's over, she is as she was before, a mysterious and compelling figure with a Cheshire grin. And Dalton is what we've come to expect from him in this great elder statesman stage of his career: big and thunderous but always very smart and very aware of the scale, pitch and degree of the work he's in.
(*) Hartnett is... better than he sometimes is, but mainly because he's used as the confused American foil for all the Brits who know more than he does. He has a good rapport with Green and with Piper, but he's not going to be the reason you watch eight episodes of this show.
Through the two episodes I've seen, the plot is mostly gibberish — an excuse to bring all these figures together, and for Logan to give his actors a series of wonderful monologues about the boundaries between life and death, the normal and the paranormal. (Treadaway in particular excels at these speeches.) But the language is wonderful, the performances excellent, and the direction by Bayona so fluid and gorgeous that I found the whole thing a treat even as I quickly lost interest in whatever it is all these people are working together to accomplish.
While FX's "American Horror Story" and the bulk of horror and action films produced today favor rapid cuts that ramp up tension but make everything hard to follow, Bayona here favors long takes and bold, bright compositions. That approach not only puts emphasis on the actors and the words they're delivering so well, but gives the whole project a classical feel appropriate to the subject and era.
Yet the project doesn't feel stodgy. One of the dangers of using characters who have existed for so long in the public domain is that so many others have had a crack at them before you, and exhausted any and all novel approaches. There's a scene at the end of the premiere that's been presented dozens upon dozens of times in film and television over the years, and the way Logan and Bayona construct it here, it felt like I was seeing it for the very first time — as if the characters in question had first been invented in this century. And Logan cleverly mixes and matches the characters and archetypes so that at one point, for instance, Green essentially winds up playing Sherlock Holmes when she first meets Hartnett(**).
(**) And once Benedict Cumberbatch and/or Jonny Lee Miller is ready to take a break, I'd very much like to see Green play Holmes for real.
It's a shame Bayona won't be behind the camera for all eight episodes, but the "True Detective" model where Cary Fukunaga directed all eight seems more a miracle than anything easily-copied. But television is filled with shows with beautifully directed pilots that were able to maintain that look once the original director moved on. (See "Lost" after J.J. Abrams left, or "Hannibal" for long stretches without David Slade.)
At one point, while bringing Hartnett into the dark underworld where their battle will be fought, Dalton warns him, "Do not be amazed by anything you see." This would be poor advice indeed for "Penny Dreadful." It may not hold together in the end, but it's going to be a treat to look at and listen to until then. And I say that as someone who's agnostic at best about horror.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org