Penny Dreadful Series Premiere Review: A Night to Dismember

By Price Peterson

May 12, 2014

Penny Dreadful S01E01: "Night Work"

Does a cable network even exist if it doesn't have its own original supernatural horror prestige drama? AMC's The Walking Dead out-rates most shows on network television; FX's American Horror Story forced a nation of DVR viewers to once again gather 'round the water cooler; MTV has Teen Wolf; WGN just unveiled the gnarly Salem; HBO's True Blood is still hanging in there despite having basically invented the model; and HLN's Nancy Grace continues to thrill and chill all these years later. It's frankly shocking that a premium cable channel like Showtime didn't already have a hit supernatural horror serial of its own. Sure, Dexter and the network's Masters of Horror anthology dabbled in the dark arts, but those were nothing compared to Penny Dreadful, Showtime's new full-blooded assault on an increasingly crowded field.

If we're being real, Showtime's original programming has always positioned the network as HBO's far more lurid, far lower-quality rival (portions of Homeland notwithstanding), but Penny Dreadful could go a long way to change all that. Boasting a terrific cast, expensive production values, and prestigious filmmakers (namely, producer Sam Mendes, writer John Logan, and director J.A. Bayona), on paper the series is already unimpeachable. But add to that some truly terrifying scares, stomach-churningly disgusting violence, surprising twists, #butts, and the grossest vampires on TV and this Victorian Monster Squad is pretty much a must-watch after only a single episode. Full disclosure: I've seen the second episode and it's even better than the first. We have a winner here, friends.

"Night Work" was very much more a set-up-slash-introduction than a proper episode of television. That's worth mentioning right up front, because Penny Dreadful's first episode was not entirely satisfying narratively, but it still an enthralling entry into this world. Set in 1800s London and taking its name from the cheap, unsavory horror publications of the day, Penny Dreadful tells the tale of Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), an American carnival gunslinger who's recruited for a clandestine mission by Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), the mysterious attaché to wealthy explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton). As we learned in the premiere, Murray's daughter has been abducted and, as he says, he'd "murder the world" to get her back. Since Chandler is a destitute alcoholic with few to no scruples, he agreed to the job only to learn within minutes what exactly he'll be dealing with: vampires. But not the handsome, romantic poets of most vampire lore. These are more feral, Nosferatu types with a monstrous leader who sleeps in a pile of eviscerated corpses. Oh, and he's seven feet tall with piranha teeth, an exoskeleton, and Egyptian hieroglyphics carved into his bones. Sorry, The CW lineup, but THESE are the kinds of vampires TV needs more of.

After that rollicking showdown, "Night Work" slowed a bit to continue its introductions. Among the series' other characters are an inscrutably accented Egyptologist (Simon Russell Beale) with an amazing haircut and a handsome young doctor who studies the area "between life and death." It miiiiiiiight constitute a spoiler to reveal the young doctor's name, seeing as it's the last line of the episode, but let's just say the entire premise of Penny Dreadful involves the intersections of characters with highly familiar names. For instance, the name of Malcolm's missing daughter will be familiar to Bram Stoker readers, and in Episode 2 we're introduced to a strikingly beautiful young man with a macabre art collection. But where stories of similarly improbable mash-ups often err on the side of camp or easy cliché, Penny Dreadful takes its time by shading in each person as a grounded individual, allowing us to fully understand what makes that person tick. Chandler wants to forge a life of actual worth, the clairvoyant Vanessa is plagued by an unexplained curse of her own (which involves spiders erupting from her wall-mounted crucifix), and the young doctor has a strong emotional attachment to his, uh, research.

Another thread that ran through "Night Work" was a string of brutal murders that plagued the poorest districts of London. After a mother and daughter were brutally murdered (in the opening moments of the show), citizens began to fear that Jack the Ripper had returned. But from what we saw onscreen, it's clear that there's a supernatural force behind these murders and it's even clearer that Penny Dreadful will be stretching out this particular whodunnit for a while. That's consistent with Penny Dreadful's borderline audacious non-rushed tone. Refreshingly show-not-tell, Penny Dreadful is often short on explanation and long on atmosphere and suggestive imagery. This might be frustrating to viewers who've grown accustomed to five twists an episode, but this sort of slow-burn suspense is what helps elevate Penny Dreadful above our expectations. Same goes for the cast, who uniformly rises to the occasion. Eva Green has been great for a while now, but Josh Hartnett (who I'd almost completely forgotten about) brings just the right kind of no-nonsense swagger to a typically standard reluctant-hero role. And have I mentioned this thing is gorgeous? From its fog-shrouded cobblestone streets to its lavish mahogany sitting rooms, Penny Dreadful looks expensive. And the monsters. Oh, the monsters.

Like I hinted at earlier, there was a glaring lack of a satisfying ending to "Night Work," and that pretty much guarantees this series will work better in marathon form. Yes, there was a surprise reveal in the closing few minutes, but it was nothing compared to the straight-up insane ending of Episode 2. I realize we're not talking about that episode yet, but if you're considering giving Penny Dreadful a shot, consider reserving judgment until after you've seen next week's second effort. All in all, "Night Work" gave us a pretty fantastic taste of what to expect from this series, and it's a relief to know that Showtime is finally producing the original supernatural horror serial it was was always capable of. YOUR MOVE, HGTV.


... What did you think about "Night Work"? Will you be back for Episode 2?

... Did you find Penny Dreadful scary? Emotional? Boring?

... Have you ever slept on a pile of dismembered corpses?

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  • tobsh May 21, 2014

    • Yes I will!
    • As you said, not all that much to say about this episode and still it was exciting, beautiful and well-acted. We'll have to wait for more episodes to measure it to those adjectives you gave.
    • Yes, I like doing so every night. Has to be a fresh pile, of course. Who'd want to sleep on a pile of dismembered corpses you have already slept on the night before?

  • GavinUK86 May 18, 2014

    Only just got around to watching Episode 2 but OMG. OMG. OMFG& That ending! I'm almost bursting at the seams to talk about it. Biting my lip until the review.

    What is there to say about Episode 1? It's terrific. JUST WATCH IT. NOW.

  • ddstephens May 17, 2014

    I have seen both episodes also and was enthralled with the visual. Scary yes, gory and gross, yes but oh so crazy good. It really was time for Showtime to put out something this good. The richness of the characters and the stories that go along with them is awesome. I am really loving how they are intertwining the monster stories together. Also yes the ending of the second episode shocked me and made me sad. I set looking through my fingers most of the time and jumped more than once. This show is awesome folks but it is not for the faint of heart or for children. I loved both episodes and I am really looking forward for the next episode. So I can jump at the boogie man stories very afraid of what goes bump in the night.........

  • katerinananai May 15, 2014

    way 2 many spiders 4 me!

  • Yniold47 May 15, 2014

    Yay Price you're recapping not one but two of my favorite shows!
    To answer your questions :
    1/ Honestly I drawn to it the second I heard Eva Green was part of the cast. Love her and she didn't disappoint me ! I'm hooked and I'll definitely be back for episode 2,3,4, etc...
    2/ I found it scary, gory, very emotional but somehow intensely poetic because of that. I already love Vanessa Ives who just seems so myterious! She's enticing to watch. For some reason, Sir Malcolm and Ethan's character sort of failed to completely"impress" me but I guess we have to learn more about them, their backstory to be fully invested in them. Can't wait to find out more about their motivations and what makes them tick in the future.
    The last scene has to be my favorite moment though. The nameless (sort of) doctor and his creature's encounter was amazing. I also loved the doctor's speech earlier this episode.
    An in all, the acting was superb so were the photography and the story! Looking forward to episode 2.
    3/ No. After having seen this episode I can definitely say I never will!

  • ryanroxasreyes May 15, 2014

    Price, please do some photo recaps. We deserve that. Please.

  • flintslady May 15, 2014

    I have to admit, even though I was anxiously awaiting this show and expecting it to blow my socks off, I found the pilot less than stellar. It was beautiful to look at no doubt, but I felt it was overly talky with no real hook or emotional oomph.

    However, when Proteus arrived at the end, that few moments of awareness in his eyes made the rest of the episode worth while and got me to watch Ep 2.

    Episode 2 was AHHMAAZING!!! Why they plodded along in episode 1, is beyond me. Proteus is fantastic. Every emotion that crosses his face kicks you in the gut. Eva was amazing (no surprise) and thoroughly creeped me the f*ck out during the seance. And Dorian.... good lord, I swear I was leaning into the TV by the end of every one of his scenes. If ever it was possible for an actor to look through the tv screen and right into your eyes this man is it.

    So I'm in. Hopefully it only gets better.

  • Lanthias_theShadow May 14, 2014

    What did you think about "Night Work"? Will you be back for Episode 2?
    Totally agreed with all of your points about the 1st episode! Loving the slow burn and the ease of introductions. I don't need to and don't want to know absolutely everything about them just yet. I watched Episodes 1 & 2 back to back and Episode 2 was even better than Episode 1. So much creep factor and I loved it! Can't wait to read your review, Price!!

    Did you find Penny Dreadful scary? Emotional? Boring?
    It was scary, creepy, and definitely emotional. I don't freak out about little spiders (big spiders, yessss), but the use of insects, period, is a real nice touch and definitely adds to the macabre. The real emotion came at the end of the episode and it was all parts sad, elated, sweet, and insane. More complex moments like this, puhlease!!

    Have you ever slept on a pile of dismembered corpses?
    Can't say that I have. Not sure it'd be real comfortable...

  • al2sf May 14, 2014

    Amazing! I was hooked after the first minutes. We do have a winner here...! Thank god this season needed one...! ^^

  • wowshoper May 14, 2014

    Oh thaaaat endiing!!! It was amazing. I understand John Logan (the creator) is gay and i believe the ending scene was a mixture between a very tense, very dark, very scary moment and a very sweet very romantic experience between two...beings that completely lets loose on what the writer is all about. And i loved it.

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