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?
AIRED ON 6/29/2014
Season 1 : Episode 8