Friday, June 20, 2014

Penny Dreadful

Taking its name from the early pulps of Victorian times that chronicled the serial adventures of such monsters and horrors as Sweeney Todd, Spring-Heeled Jack, Black Bess, Varney the Vampire and countless fictional accounts of Jack the Ripper, Showtime's "Penny Dreadful" is amazing television.

Literally, the penny dreadfuls were internet rumors like the Slender Man gone mad, but in cheap paper form. If Snopes were around then, charging per click, they'd be rich. The penny dreadfuls were the soaps, the internet, and the bedtime boogieman cautionary tales of the Victorian age, and the precursors of the American dime novels and pulps.

The spirit of the original penny dreadfuls is alive and well in the Showtime series as it tries to blend various Gothic tales of horror into one web of continuity a la Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Among those in for weaving are Shelley's "Frankenstein," Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and the one that ties them together, Stoker's "Dracula." All are public domain, and easily manipulated into a new tapestry. I was a bit surprised that Stevenson's "Hyde" was not pulled into the mix, but perhaps that's a tidbit for the second season coming in 2015.

"Penny Dreadful" is the creation of screenwriter John Logan, who has penned as many of my favorite recent films as well as some I'm not so fond of. A select few include The Last Samurai, Gladiator, Skyfall (as well as the next two James Bond films), the ill-conceived Tim Burton nightmare version of Sweeney Todd, and the absolutely wonderful RKO 281. He is definitely a get for Showtime, as is executive producer Sam Mendes, who Logan met on Skyfall.

The story focuses on Sir Malcolm Murray (played by Timothy Dalton, speaking of Bond, but he's a much better heavy than hero in my opinion), a Victorian adventurer and explorer very much in the vein of Allan Quatermain, who is searching for his lost daughter Mina. We know from the start, simply from her name, where she's gone, and what Sir Malcolm will be up against, but sadly he does not. Dalton plays Murray as determined, obsessed, and someone who will "burn the world" to get his daughter back.

His servant and confidant is sadly the stereotypical 'magical Negro,' but I like him. Sembene, played by Danny Sapani of UK's "Misfits," possesses a certain second sight and reminds me of a cross between Mandrake's Lothar and Nonso Anozie's Renfield from NBC's failed TV steampunk version of "Dracula."

Along for the ride is also friend of the family (just barely, more like scarred outsider as we learn from flashbacks) Vanessa Ives. A free spirit of the time, she's played by Eva Green, never one of my favorite actresses, as I felt she was not right for her roles in Casino Royale of Starz' "Camelot," she is well cast here. A medium, a vessel for possession, possibly friend and foe, Miss Ives is the crux of the show. Through her the others characters are connected.

Ives brings in American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett, one of my favorite actors, especially in Bunraku) as firepower in Malcolm quest. Fleeing the US and riding with a Wild West show, he seems to have his share of secrets as well, the least of which are his drunken blackouts, and viewers' suspicion that he may be the Ripper menacing London behind the scenes of the show's main monsters.

Speaking of monsters, there is no shortage here. From singer/songwriter Harry Treadaway's creepy nerdpunk Victor Frankenstein to his two creations Proteus and Caliban to the sexy Reeve Carney, throwing off his Broadway Spider-Man typecasting to play the egomaniacal danger junkie Dorian Gray. He's still in the adrenaline business, but we get to see his face, and much much more of his body as well as his real accent.

Gray is after any new experience he can find, including bedding half the cast, including Brona Croft, the prostitute dying of consumption who has hooked up with Ethan. It seems as though she may also be the target for the Frankenstein monster's mate sooner or later. Just as Carney is trying to break genre typecasting, Brona is played by Billie Piper, everyone's favorite "Doctor Who" companion, Rose Tyler. I find her forced accent here annoying, but I guess she's still trying to shake off that whole Defender of the Universe thing.

The whole bunch of them are headed toward a confrontation with Dracula sooner or later, who himself seems to be more in the Nosferatu visual department, which when you go by the book is actually on mark. There are some wonderful homages and nods to the Stoker book, like the plague ship, and the way the flashback episode was done in an epistle, but by no means think this goes strictly by the book. The sudden and surprising death of David Warner's Van Helsing should cure you of that right quick.

There are two more episodes of the first season on Showtime, and you can read my good friend Marie Gilbert's weekly impressions of the show over at Biff Bam Pop! for another view. You should check it out, "Penny Dreadful" is not for the squeamish or the prudish (lots of sex, violence, and gore), but it is some of the best television going on right now.

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