The first and most surprising thing about Penny Dreadful is how slow it is in explaining itself. The pilot, “Night Work,” and the second episode, “Séance,” take up two whole hours of storytelling, which you’d think would be enough to answer some basic questions about the premise. But Penny Dreadful makes the most of it—stretching out dramatic scenes and introductions to new characters with the confidence of a far more mature show. As a result, the opening of this season feels less like a foundation being built for an ambitious story and more like a spark setting off a chain reaction. The story grows, denser and stranger, and at the end, you’re left with more questions than before. Penny Dreadful is more concerned with drawing out fear and wonder and the creeping thrill of the unknown than it is with proving a point or revealing a fact.
The quickest way this reveals itself to the viewer is in the first two episodes’ unusually long scenes—not single takes, like the famous True Detective shot, but rather scenes that take up significant episodic space, in their moment-to-moment tale-spinning. The second episode’s titular séance takes up a full 10 minutes of the show’s time—which is astonishing, when you realize the episode is just shy of 50 minutes all together. The length of the scene is so meditatively long that it demands presence—not just on the part of the actors who are working to make an unwieldy moment work, but also on the part of the viewers, who have to stay with the unfolding drama.
It creates a sensation that is almost painful in its intimacy. Penny Dreadful is by definition a gothic, steampunk horror show, and as such could be easily written off as camp. But the intensity of scenes like the séance, or scenes like the closing moments of “Night Work,” draw the show out of its genre underpinnings into something much more vital and revelatory. Add to that a cast of extraordinary talent, and the cinematic sensibilities of a film veteran, and Penny Dreadful offers a moody, bloody, dark fantasy that slowly unfurls more and more horror. But the show is more like True Detective than Hannibal, even if the visuals of seeping blood and dismemberment skew more toward the latter. Because while in Hannibal, the audience knows the infernal truth right from the get-go—that Hannibal is the devil in disguise—Penny Dreadful relies on the atmospheric buildup that True Detective used so well in its similarly short run.
The story of Penny Dreadful follows that of the show’s namesake periodical—cheap, splashy horror stories, of the type that was popular in the late 19th century. Penny Dreadful brings the viewer to London in 1891, a city still horrified by the works of Jack the Ripper. And just as a pulp story would be anxious to cut to the action, Penny Dreadful introduces a character or two and then walks them into a pit of demons, quite literally. Explanation, when it is given, is short and cryptic—and as Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives points out with a cutting stare, it wouldn’t matter, anyway. The point is the headlong rush of the story, and of sinking into the terror and wonder of these oddly powerful characters.
Penny Dreadful is the creation of John Logan, a career scriptwriter for works as diverse as Rango and Skyfall. He’s been the writer behind numerous award-winning films, including Gladiator, Hugo, Sweeney Todd, and The Aviator, all of which went on to bring their directors and actors accolades. And all of those films have demonstrated a remarkable facility for balancing out what studios think audiences want to see with what audiences actually want to see—a healthy mix of action/adventure and special effects with internally consistent and captivating protagonists. As a result, they’re also films that land right in Hollywood’s sweet spot, at the intersection of box-office success and critical acclaim.
On one hand, Penny Dreadful is another opportunity for Logan to marry spectacle with substance, as he has in the past. But Penny Dreadful is also a different beast from his previous work. Logan’s expertise is in film—he’s written made-for-TV movies before, but never a serialized story. Penny Dreadful is just eight episodes long, but presumably, it’s a story that could continue through more seasons. And unlike his work in film, where Logan has written for visionary directors like Martin Scorcese, Ridley Scott, and Tim Burton, television might be Logan’s opportunity to have full creative control of something he’s written.
Presumably due to Logan’s influence (he’s working on the 24th and 25th installments of the Bond franchise right now), the regular cast of Penny Dreadful stars no less than three alums of the James Bond franchise: Green, from Casino Royale; Rory Kinnear, from Skyfall; and Timothy Dalton, who played Bond himself. All three, unrelated to their shared history, offer marvelous performances—where “marvelous” is a word used to describe psychic mystics and circus freaks. Because that’s the most important and undefinable element of Penny Dreadful’s success—the evocation of this atmosphere of 1891, with its bloody, unhygienic autopsies and its Victorian interest in science, exploration, and the occult. Penny Dreadful is not interested in the mechanical side of steampunk, but it revels in the manners and dialects of the era, as well as the costumes, the living quarters, the social hierarchy, and the dirt—everything in Penny Dreadful is filthy, dying, or already dead. It’s as much a commentary on humanity as the story is.
To say much more about the plot or the other characters would be to ruin some of Penny Dreadful’s charming mystique—this is the type of show where a spoiler might actually be a spoiler. Suffice to say that you will recognize some names as characters introduce themselves, and begin to put two and two together on your own before any mysteries are solved on-screen. Penny Dreadful is a surprising show, one that offers both some putrid rotting at the core of London’s soul and a way of going about excavating humanity’s inherent darkness in a different and unexpected way. That is easily worth a penny, and maybe more.
Created by: John Logan
Starring: Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett, Reeve Carney, and Rory Kinnear
Debuts: Sunday at 10 p.m. Eastern on Showtime
Format: Hour-long limited drama series
Two episodes watched for review