I have no idea why I haven’t reviewed this show before now, but better late than never, right?
Let me first preface this review by saying I’m not usually a fan of horror. I’m such a wimp, I don’t end up lasting very long in horror movies, I rarely choose to read horror, and I prefer to avoid horror shows because I like being able to sleep at night. Penny Dreadful is the one major exception, for which I arm myself with pillow and endure because it’s too good to wuss-out on.
As the name implies, this series is inspired by the macabre story genre from the 19th Century featuring characters like Sweeney Todd. This series sees a cast of characters cobbled together from 19th Century literature, as well as several new characters, set against a world of Victorian nasties. In the first season, the Penny Dreadful team battled against vampires and in the second season, they’re gearing up for a fight against witches. Like Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful is a mini-series of sorts with only 6-8 hour-long episodes per season. The story unfolds in various arcs throughout the season and you definitely need to start from the very beginning if you want to follow all the various threads of the tale. The threads seem a little frayed at the moment, even though we’re halfway through season 2, and I have no idea how they’ll pull together the tapestry but I’m sure they will.
While the plot is exciting and ghoulish and horror-tastic with a fair amount of gore, and even more psychological terror, what drew me to Penny Dreadful at the start and what keeps me coming back to this series week after frightening week is the cast of characters and the richness of the writing. Every character operates in a moral grey. Some are trying to be better people than others, but circumstances force every single one of them to make dubious moral decisions and I love that! Despite being 19th C literary inventions, these characters feel so real, so utterly human – sometimes pathetic, sometimes awesome, always fallible – that I can’t help but feel for each and every single one. In most shows, I find myself attached to one or two characters and rooting for them (like Jon Snow and Daenerys) to the point where I almost don’t care what happens to the others, but Penny Dreadful has its claws in me, making me feel for every single character dammit!
Here’s the cast…
Vanessa Ives – a series original creation – is the tortured protagonist of the show who adds a much needed dose of girl power in an era dominated by men. Eva Green is a force of nature in this series and deserves every TV show award there is for her portrayal of a woman who is as vulnerable as she is powerful. The show doesn’t shy away from feminism, nascent it may have been in the Victorian era, and the relatively few female leads (significantly more now in season 2) are very well written and are given a voice, sometimes directly questioning the status quo of the patriarchy.
Sir Malcom Murray as in the Murray family of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This guy is leader of the group and a father figure to Vanessa. Despite looking ever so noble in that promo poster, this guy is hiding some seriously dark history.
Ethan Chandler – another series original and the only American in the group. Sadly I can’t say much about this character without giving away some pretty huge spoilers. Suffice it to say he’s the heart of this show, kind and gentle and extremely dangerous.
Dorian Gray – the immortal beauty from Oscar Wilde’s novel. Dorian is one of the most enigmatic characters on the show because we don’t really know what’s going on with him yet. Suffice it to say, there seems to be very little he won’t do. Also, Dorian is responsible for almost all of the show’s sex scenes. It’s also pretty awesome to see his bisexuality so unashamedly and positively portrayed in a TV show. Bear in mind this is still 19th Century London so it’s not like Dorian can be totally out and proud.
Victor Frankenstein – this character needs little introduction. He is the voice of reason in the show, arguing science over theology, an open atheist butting heads with the others who are either overtly religious, like Vanessa, or apathetic agnostics, like Dorian.
There are quite a few other supporting characters who are all an important part of the story and of what makes this ensemble cast so dynamic. Of all these secondary characters, however, the one that has truly stolen my heart is Frankenstein’s creature. In this creature, the writers have created the perfect dichotomy of brutality and tenderness, horror and romance, beauty and ugliness. If nothing else about this show entices you, I urge you to give this show a try so you can meet the Creature. He and Frankenstein share some of the most exquisite, poetic, and profound dialogue I’ve ever heard on the small screen.
Characters and writing aside, this show is aesthetically pleasing too. The cinematography is breathtaking, the costumes and settings lavish with no expense spared in recreating Victorian London. Despite a few wobbles with the CGI in season 1, the majority of special effects have been good to excellent, and have only improved so far in season 2.
While season 1 introduced the characters and era to the audience by using the vampire-hunting trope, season 2 has come into its own, creating a far richer tapestry of personal character history while delving into ever darker subject material that often pits science against religion. The creep factor has been upped significantly this season – in fact, everything about this show has been stepped up in season 2 and I cannot wait to see where the writers will go next especially considering they have the existing penny dreadful stories from which to draw inspiration.
Penny Dreadful scores 5/5 ink splats from me and I strongly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys Gothic horror, eloquent dialogue, and conflicted characters.