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TV Review: Penny Dreadful Season 1, Episode 1

05.11.2014by: Chris Bumbray

Episode 1: Night Work

SUMMARY: Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) – a gunslinging American travelling with a Wild West show in 19th century London, is hired by the mysterious Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) to help them on a quest through the violent London underworld, which they discover is rife with supernatural activity.

REVIEW: While big-screen horror seems to be in a bit of a slump these days (limited to PG-13 haunted house movies and micro-budget found footage) on TV the genre has seen something of a renaissance. Shows like THE WALKING DEAD, TRUE BLOOD, HANNIBAL, and BATES MOTEL have all found some degree of critical and mainstream success, and now the genre is suddenly white hot, with ambitious fare like HBO's THE LEFTOVERS and FX's THE STRAIN due this summer. Beating them to the punch is the no less ambitious PENNY DREADFUL, which takes some of the most popular (public domain) horror icons of late nineteenth century English literature, and throws them together in a kind of post-modern pastiche.

If this sounds a little like THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN you're not far off. Coming from Josh Logan and Sam Mendes – who recently revitalized the James Bond series with SKYFALL – PENNY DREADFUL is named after a kind of cheap British publication of the era not unlike the pulp novels that were popular in North America in the first half of the twentieth century. These “Penny Dreadful's” were loaded with lurid, sensationalistic stories, and being on a network like Showtime, this show certainly doesn't skimp in either of those departments. While one might assume that Mendes and Logan might have somewhat lofty ambitions for the show, on the whole, the purpose behind PENNY DREADFUL doesn't seem to be more than to just give it audience a good time. In that department, the promising pilot is mostly successful.

In fifty-five minutes, the show-runners have done a good job introducing most of the main characters, even if most of their motivations are kept obscure, presumably to be revealed as the show goes on (this first season runs for eight weeks). The focus – so far – seems to be on Hartnett's cowboy gunslinger, who apparently was a rich easterner in the states, before being forced to pick up a gun. Hartnett, who's been MIA for a couple of years, makes a strong comeback in the part. Now a little older and slightly more grizzled, Hartnett fits the role to a tee. They seems to be trying to make him a kind of “man with no-name”, Eastwood-like figure, and let it be said Hartnett squints with the best of them. Wearing a gruff-beard and cowboy-style long hair, Hartnett both looks and acts cool, making for a good gunslinger.

So far, Eva Green and Timothy Dalton also appear to have major roles, although the alphabetical way the cast is presented in the credits makes me wonder if everyone's going to survive the first season. Other than Hartnett, Timothy Dalton's Sir Malcolm is the most fleshed out. An Alan Quartermain-style African explorer, Sir Malcolm is trying to infiltrate the underworld to rescue his daughter Mina (a name that should be familiar to anyone who knows their Bram Stoker) who now only appears to him in ghostly visions. It's great seeing former (underrated) James Bond Timothy Dalton pop-up in such a cool role and despite being well into his sixties, Dalton still cuts an imposing figure and gets in on a lot of the action with Hartnett. It's also a nice tip of the hat by Logan and Mendes to the Bond franchise, which both are still heavily invested in (the casting of CASINO ROYALE's Green in another nice touch).

As for Eva Green – who's coming off 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE with a lot of buzz – not much has been revealed about her so far other than the fact that she's a clairvoyant somehow indebted to Dalton's Sir Malcolm. Book end sequences that show her furiously praying in Latin while overrun by spiders suggest that she's the victim of some kind of demonic curse, and one imagines that over the course of the season the show will be as much about her journey as anyone else's (it doesn't hurt that she's also the biggest star). The only disappointment is that despite Showtime's reputation for nudity, so far Green's been kept fully-clothed, although a scene where she does a tarot card reading for Hartnett and comes up “the lovers” card suggests this might just be a case of “good things come to those who wait.” Green's one of the sexiest actresses in the world and not only does she look great in the period clothing, but she also has a cool, otherworldly look that suits the premise. The French Green is also really gifted with accents, doing a very credible English accent which – to my ears – sounds pretty good.

The other regular introduced here is Harry Treadaway's Victor Frankenstein, who's somewhat more maniacal seeming here than usually depicted although so far he seems to be one of the good guys. His monster, played by SKYFALL's Rory Kinnear, is revealed briefly in the closing scenes. Dorian Grey – to be played by SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK's Reeve Carney hasn't been introduced yet but is listed as a regular.

Directed by J.A Bayona – of THE ORPHANAGE and THE IMPOSSIBLE – PENNY DREADFUL benefits from really high productions values which rival any film. With a good soundtrack by noted composer Abel Korzeniowski ( ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW and A SINGLE MAN) and gorgeous cinematography, PENNY DREADFUL is another example of how a lot of TV nowadays is slicker than a lot of films. This is an A-class production all the way, and in fifty-five minutes Bayona loads the pilot with action, with the big set-piece occurring about mid-way through as Hartnett, Dalton, and Green take on a room full of demons and a Nosferatu-looking vampire. Bayona returns for next week's episode, although that seems to be it for him.

Overall, the first episode of PENNY DREADFUL is really promising, although like most shows it'll take a few more installments to judge whether or not this is going to be consistently good, or worthy of being called appointment television. It's not as immediately brilliant as THE WALKING DEAD or something like TRUE DETECTIVE, but it seems like a good bet as far as these shows go. Being on Showtime, we can also expect lots of R-rated thrills, although so far I'm sorry to say the nudity has been confined to (too many) full-frontal shots of Frankenstein's monster. I'd say PENNY DREADFUL is off to a really good start, and it should prove to be a really solid summer series. I'm looking forward to next week's episode.

Extra Tidbit: Anyone else spot the obvious Alfred Hitchcock homage early-on?



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