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Penny Dreadful: The First Three Episodes

Penny Dreadful has drawn me in. I almost hated the first episode, save for the bloody-as-hell battle about one-third of the way in, which was truly well-done in an Alan Moore, occultish sort of way. It was odd and bloody and tied directly to the era, so it had just enough verisimilitude to suspend disbelief.
But the first episodejust didn’t work for me. And this is saying a lot, considering how much I like Josh Hartnett. (I think 30 Days of Night, for example, is way underrated). I don’t know. I just thought the first episode was too much of a catch-all for “monster” stuff, and it seemed to be trying way too hard.

I even thought that most of the way through the second episode. The exposition is kind of clunky – Dorian Gray says his name every time he’s on-screen, like it’s some kind of SNL sketch the audience doesn’t quite get – and the Frankenstein storyline is hokey and too self-important. That stuff is bad. The rest of the show can be a little too winky-campy, even for something titled Penny Dreadful. (Can I mash those words together? I think so.) Anyway, I wasn’t overly impressed, and I thought the show was tossing too many Victorian-era touchstones together. 

  • Frankenstein

  • Dorian Gray

  • Dracula

  • Jack the Ripper

And that’s just to name a few. There’s plenty to manage, and I was afraid Penny Dreadful was going to be dragged down to the depths due an inability to control its various plot thread.
The truth of that particular criticism remains to be seen – and I’m still not particularly fond of the Frankenstein plot thread just yet – but for the most part I’ve come to appreciate what Penny Dreadful is attempting to accomplish. It doesn’t necessarily want to be a single thing; it is meant to be a collection of stories, with plotlines that intertwine rather than converge. Hence, the name. I know. I know. I get it.
The problem is that there are so many interesting late 19th century stories to tell that leaning so heavily on literary masterpieces is a bit odd. Frankenstein and Dracula are not gory pulp stories. That is where the show goes wrong. Having characters monologue in the style of Mary Shelley only sets a dramatic bar the show won’t be able to leap over. The show is meant to be kind of tongue-in-cheek, so having a monster dressed like Robert Smith and monologuing in long, Shelley-ish paragraphs wrecks the tone.
Penny Dreadful works best with its largely original storylines. Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) is the real star of the show, and her virtuoso performance is untouchable. It wasn’t until the seance that I even found myself really, truly drawn in, but that episode transformed the show into more than a passing oddity, and Evan Green is largely responsible for that. Josh Hartnett has been painfully underused, though her kindling friendship with Brona Croft (Doctor Who alum Billie Piper) is definitely something I’d like to see develop, and judging by the events of the third episode, he’s been given a modest reason for joining the monster hunters Vanessa Ives and Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton).
Where the show excels is in attempting to paint a portrait of the era, and the farther into the season the show goes, the better it gets. Frankenstein’s Monster’s brief vignette detailing his experiences with the theater and Grand Guignol is one of my favorite single moments of the show, and I hope the “plot” doesn’t become so bloated that these kinds of sequences do not feel out-of-place and ludicrous. If the show runners are smart – and I have no reason to believe they are not – Penny Dreadful‘s success will be contingent upon how it continues to broaden the strokes of the brush, allowing the characters to be the proxies for entrance into the world, rather than mere exposition markers. 
Let’s hope Penny Dreadful will have the ambition – and more importantly, the time – to be able to widen the scope of its aims. So far, it’s a watchable, interesting show, but there’s so much more it can be. ]]>

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