Few TV shows can boast of the pedigree behind Showtime’s new series Penny Dreadful. Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan (Skyfall, Gladiator) created and executive produces it. Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) is another executive producer. And the first two episodes are directed by J.A. Bayona, who helmed The Orphanage and is attached to the forthcoming World War Z sequel and A Monster Calls.
Throw in a cool premise, and expectations are pretty high, as they should be. Based on the first two episodes, Penny Dreadful is must-see TV. Granted, other recent shows have showed a lot of promise only to completely fall apart (The Following), but it’s hard to imagine this show suffering a similar fate.It is London, September 1891. Residents are on edge about Jack the Ripper. After a woman is savagely attacked (she is literally torn to pieces), the papers wonder if the Ripper is responsible. The murder is followed by an introduction to an American named Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett). He is part of a traveling Wild West show where he shows off his shooting skills and brags about all of the danger he’s encountered in the U.S. He also drinks too much and has a weakness for the ladies.
Clearly, Ethan is not exactly thrilled about his current career. He gets a chance to do something different when he is approached by a mysterious “spiritualist” named Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). She represents Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), who is desperately searching for his missing daughter. They want Ethan to help locate her. This involves a trip to what Vanessa describes as a “half-world between what we know and what we fear.” Whatever kind of world it is, it is dangerous and creepy. There are piles of dead bodies and creatures with Hieroglyphics underneath an exoskeleton. The show wastes no time in establishing the fact that this particular London is a weird and violent place.
While Ethan, Malcolm, and Vanessa search for Malcolm’s daughter, the gruesome murders continue. The second episode opens with a man and woman (not together) murdered in a park late one night. We catch a glimpse of someone in the shadows, but it’s impossible to see who (or what) it is. A conversation between Murray and a police inspector lets us know that there are many unsolved murders in the area and the killer is taking murders. Murray tells the inspector that the killer is a beast and not a man.As if the missing daughter and the murders aren’t enough, the show also introduces Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) in the first two episodes. So there are a lot of characters and is a lot going on. Hopefully, the show is able to effectively balance this as it moves forward.
For now, pretty much everything is clicking with Penny Dreadful. It isn’t perfect of course. Chandler is a very familiar character at this point. Also, the dialogue isn’t always sharp (“we all have our curses don’t we”) and it can get a little hokey. When Malcolm admits that he doesn’t know the source of the Hieroglyphics on a creature’s body, an Egyptologist shares that it is from the Book of the Dead in as ominous and dramatic a way as possible, as if that has never been uttered in film or television history.
Minor issues aside, it is intoxicating and mystifying in all the right ways. There are some decent chills, including a very odd séance at a party that goes very wrong, and plenty of horrific gore. The production values are strong and the acting solid. And it tantalizingly teases out the existence of things we have yet to see, things that are not human. Malcolm’s missing daughter is almost beside the point, and the show doesn’t treat it as all that important. It’s just a way to bring viewers into this world, one where you never know what’s behind the corner. Through two episodes, it’s a world that’s a lot of fun to visit.
Penny Dreadful premieres on Showtime on Sunday, May 11th.