The logline of Penny Dreadful is both familiar and risky: "What if Every Gothic Thing?" Vampires? Ghosts? Frankenstein? Check. It could easily become 19th-century sausage. But Penny Dreadful's kind of delightful, because it's more interested in the pulp than the specifics. And it's off to a great start.
Victorian Gothic is a genre rich in pretty much everything. Swooning damsels and active ones, infuriating heroes, monsters both smooth and grotesque, haunted gentry, rainy nights, spiritualism, creaky castles, deeply metaphorical monsters, figures hovering just behind you that are gone when you turn around, probably a weird clergyman, and the kind of "We can't speak of it now!" atmosphere that comes when the writer's being paid by the word and is still five installments away from figuring out how to explain the secret door behind the fireplace in the Great Hall.
But so often, the feel of the Gothic is lost in adaptation — a casualty of the quest for more vampires, bigger werewolves, and fancy gizmos.
So even if it weren't particularly pretty, and the cast not particularly good, Penny Dreadful would rack up points by the handful for sheer mood: As monstrous murders are being committed all over London (to the enthusiastic revulsion of the public—there's nothing more Victorian), trick shot Ethan Chandler is asked by a mysterious woman for hired-gun work involving vampires, which raises more questions than it answers. There's an unmistakable noir overlay — this is a cynical gun for hire who's being femme-fataled by a femme who might literally be fatal — but the pilot packs so much Gothic punch that I suspect this show plans to make the most of both influences.
And just to get this out of the way, the show's actually really pretty.
Above: Crime-scene courtyard complete with gawping crowd; vampire hallway; city street; fancy parlor; Frankenstein's workroom; and the office of Ferdinand Lyle, Egyptologist and scenery-chewer, who gets to inform our lead twosome that the vampire they found covered in hieroglyph tattoos is probably bad news. (He won't tell them why for another five installments.)
In case the Josh Hartnett posters have confused you, this is the lead twosome:
On the left, Sir Malcolm Murray, sitting in his Brooding Parlor where the photograph of his long-lost children gets the best afternoon light. On the right, Vanessa Ives, Over It. They have one of those loaded Victorian relationships where they're not overtly Together, but something's definitely keeping them in one another's orbit, and it's probably not great. (Side note: In this scene, he tells her to get ready to go out shortly, and she asks where they're going. Since he answers with "Among dead things," the object was clearly not to inform us of the location; in my costume-nerd heart, this means she was actually trying to determine whether she should wear a walking dress or a dinner dress to their destination. The costumes are just good enough that I would buy that. After Sleepy Hollow, I just want to be able to buy that, okay?)
Eva Green is one of those actresses who you can tell is good, but she rarely gets the chance to show it to best advantage, because her intensity doesn't quite fit a lot of projects. Penny Dreadful makes the most of her thousand-yard stare and haunted mien; it feels like a role she's been waiting for, and the show wisely makes room for her. She's arch when she needs to be—after Malcolm gets a visit from his vampire daughter Mina, he and Vanessa have a heart-to-heart during which she hisses, "Was I not responsible? Were it not for my transgression, would any of this have occurred?" and they immediately change the direction of conversation, because we are all the Ethan Chandler of the viewing audience and don't deserve to be informed. But her otherworldly gravity and intensity never falter.
This is a shot just moments before she walks calmly through a three-on-two fight with Ethan and Malcolm and goes hunting for Mina Murray in a pile of corpse parts, during which she stares down a vampire with a puzzled calmness that startles both us and the vampire. We're five installments away from knowing if there's a reason she's so unfazed by the gaze of the Lord of Night, but we don't wonder for a moment why he'd be fazed by her.
And this is Ethan in the room of corpse parts! This show is taking every pulp-Goth hyperbolic description of every bloody chamber completely literally on every possible count. The corn syrup budget on this show must be immense.
It is INTENSE. (This is the site of the show's opening scene, in which a woman is yanked from the privy through a window. The figure in the foreground here—which felt like unnecessary Darkness—is a little girl. The figure in the background is a policeman barfing into a vase. At least the show knows, I guess.)
But I appreciate the visual parallel between the vampire corpse piles, the unknown-monster corpse pile, and the doctoral training grounds. This is one of the tamer shots, because there are no close-ups of open body cavities.
Naturally, they find Frankenstein to look at the vampire body. He is supremely into it. Vanessa is not convinced.
Not in this frame, because the show has already blessedly sidelined him, is Josh Hartnett, washed-up trick shot who spends the pilot getting the James-Bond rundown from Vanessa (a shout-out so direct you could hear writer John Logan cackling the entire length of the monologue), and then alternately shooting things and being completely in the dark about everything that's going on. Nobody tells him anything, because they don't feel like it. It's maybe my favorite thing about the show, and I hope that no matter how much the show eventually tells us, it never ever tells him, because Completely Over His Head is a pretty good look on him:
Sembene, an associate of Sir Malcolm acting as a butler so far because this show is testing me, feels the same way about Ethan as everyone else does, but expresses it more succinctly:
But for me, this shot actually makes Ethan.
My secret favorite thing about this shot is not the fact that Josh Hartnett's thumb covers up the "y" so that it looks like To Ethan, from our Father. (On Penny Dreadful, the daddy issues get weirdly personal, as you and Josh Hartnett battle for a father's love!) It's that this is the only glimpse of his background we get before Vanessa shows up to deduce him, and then the plot gets rolling and there's no time. That means at the same time as every character refuses to explain anything to Ethan, the episode itself quietly sets up this backstory for Ethan and STILL doesn't let him finish. This show is only technically a pulpy Victorian supernatural potboiler. It's actually a show about studiously thwarting Ethan Chandler. I'm excited.
You know who else is excited about thwarting Ethan? Vanessa and her tarot deck, which manages to feel a little eerie even though we all know exactly what card he's going to flip over.
In the Rifftrax for The House on Haunted Hill, Kevin Murphy describes the movie's femme fatale as "the kind of chick who'll trick you into eating her nail clippings." I thought of that line every time I watched this scene, because look at her.
It's to the show's benefit that Vanessa has already proved to be so interesting that any potential romance with Ethan is just a background facet of her story, and not her prime concern. Her prime concern is that every time she prays to her inverted cross, candles hover behind her and she's vaguely possessed and spiders teem out of the wall.
This had better never happen again, okay show? IT CAN NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN.
The thing is, though, for all the scene's shock value, Eva Green's palpable grief and desperation avoids any sexy-witch salaciousness; it's genuinely unsettling, and makes you wonder as much about what she's lost as it does about the horrible, horrible bugs.
And this, I think, is one of the show's most promising aspects; though everyone's aware what show they're in (Timothy Dalton, in particular, knows exactly the sort of portentousness required), the show has strategically invested in some of them to great effect. Vanessa's an excellent start, and even some smaller characters get hints of something beneath the surface. Take Simon Russel Beale's Dr. Lyle, who has a stereotypically-flamobyant vibe at first glance, but who manages to be both over-the-top camp and earnestly foreboding:
I hope we see him again. That vampire-hieroglyph Macguffin isn't going to translate itsef.
But almost everything else in the show gets eclipsed in the episode's final moments by, of all people, Frankenstein.
I'm a fan of the Treadaway siblings, and had hoped this would be a breakout role for Harry despite Frankenstein being such a frequently-visited character. And I appreciated the monologue he gives Sir Malcolm about how SOME Victorians might like to conquer far-off lands and study bullshit like biology and physics, HE is engaged in research about bringing people back from the GRAVE, okay, and while they're wandering around doing all that useless colonization and egomaniacal bullshit, he's going to wake up some dead bodies, which is probably not at all a colonial move and is also way cooler than something terrible like ornithology, OKAY? (I hope this show realizes the full promise of what it's doing here, because I would dig some Victorian-colonized-bodies alongside all these piles of vampire corpse parts.)
But then his experiment wakes up, and the show effortlessly shifts gears from self-aware, creepy fun into unexpectedly affecting drama.
The creature drags Frankenstein's tear along his own face, which is more poignant than it has any right to be. When Frankenstein asks him in a broken voice if he can hear, and the creature does a full-body startle, a show that up until now had been gently tweaking tropes suddenly transformed the way-too-familiar scene of Frankenstein and the waking creature into something that feels genuinely fresh and moving. This Frankenstein might reject his creature with the same horrified vehemence as his literary forebear, but not tonight.
Managing to be both comforting and unfamiliar, this feels like a first episode of a series that knows exactly what it's up to tonally, which is a quality that can't be overrated in a show where mood is so crucial. (See also: Sleepy Hollow.) Add to that the cast, the aesthetic (maybe minus the bugs and the corpse piles), and the wholehearted embrace of Victorian tropes (we didn't even have time to talk about Timothy Dalton's lion monologue about looking at his vampire daughter and feeling not like the HUNTER, but like the PREEEEEY), and I have a feeling we're in for a fun eight weeks.