It’s astounding that a single period in time could produce so many iconic literary characters. Maybe it has something to do with the smoggy streets of Victorian London, or the fear in which people greeted the vast technological changes accompanying the Industrial revolution. Or maybe it was because, for the first time in human history, the majority of the population could read. Whatever the reason, the late nineteenth century produced the likes of Count Dracula, Frankenstein, Dorian Grey, Jack the Ripper (who, although real, populates the pages of literature as strongly as he did the temporal world), Sherlock Holmes, and a horde of other monsters and ghouls.
These monsters—both human and otherwise—are the subject of John Logan’s new series, Penny Dreadful. Set in late nineteenth century England, Logan (who penned both Skyfall and Gladiator) creates a world which is both tone-y and accessible.
I’m not a huge fan of horror. Or rather, I’m very easily scared, which makes me, perhaps, the show’s ideal audience. Regardless, I was apprehensive when I watched the pilot episode. The show opens in a seedy tenement in the middle of the night. An unnamed mother who looks like she’s just walked off the set of Les Mis awakens and slowly gets up to go to the bathroom. It’s a good thing characters in horror movies can’t hear background music or else they’d never do anything. Suffice it to say, if I woke up in the middle of the night with the urge to use the chamber pot, and heard the score from Penny Dreadful, I’d hop back into bed and worry about the sheets in the morning.
But alas, our Fantine-esque mother slowly limps down the hallway of her cramped apartment building and, just as she lights the wooden receptacle in the shared bathroom, she looks out if the window and… I won’t give it away but what comes next isn’t good.
Despite a particularly gory opening sequence, the show goes light on the blood and guts. The costumes and set are sparse as well. Downton Abbey this is not, and I think that’s a good thing. Costume dramas (i.e. The Duchess, Marie Antoinette) have the potential to let the story drop in favor of gowns, wigs and sets. Logan has steered away from this.
After our unnamed mother is made proof of why you should never go to the restroom alone, we cut to a prosperous town house. In a grand, but rather sterile yellow drawing room, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) kneels huddled in front of a bare wall upon which hangs a single crucifix. Vanessa’s fervent prayer is answered not by the word of God, but by an aggressive spider which crawls out of Jesus’s mouth and throws her into an epileptic fit of reverie. We then cut to a Wild West Show where Ethan Chandler, former Playboy and scion of a fallen family, works as an actor and sharpshooter while sleeping with groupies on the side.
The first twenty minutes of the show pass in disconnected snippets. This might be a little jolting but the images are so strong that it’s hard not to become invested.
The story lines begin to intersect about halfway through the pilot. Vanessa approaches Ethan at a pub and offers him “night work.” He agrees and the pair meet up later that night at an opium den. Vanessa brings an associate with her, Sir Malcom Murray (Timothy Dalton), who tells Ethan not to “be amazed” by anything he’s about to see. The trio enter the opium den and descend into a slaughter house populated by corpses and a monster that looks like something out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Again, the design is understated, but that’s because the show is not actually about monsters. It’s about loss.
Sir Malcolm Murray has lost his daughter and is desperately searching to get her back. Ethan Chandler has lost his direction in life and Vanessa, it seems, has lost her relationship with God. Over the course of the first episode, we also meet Dr. Victor Frankenstein, a medical student. Frankenstein is so moved by loss that he seeks to conquer it, to bring someone back from the dead. Logan’s take on these characters is quieter, deeper and more human than any iteration we’ve seen since they were first introduced. Frankenstein, for example, is not a raving eastern European scientist in a castle, but a young poet who cries when his monster first comes to life.
What Logan has done is taken characters so iconic they’ve become clichés, and turned them on their heads. We, the audience, have certain expectations of these characters. The fact that these expectations are upset, nearly from the beginning, makes Penny Dreadful thrilling to watch. It’s an investigation of people we think we know but whom, we realize, we don’t know at all.
The world has a funny, cyclical way of recycling ideas and stories and history and in that sense, Penny Dreadful has debuted at a rather apt time. The show’s title comes from the cheap, episodic serials that were popular in turn of the century London. These weekly stories would detail accounts of murder and mayhem, and were consumed by the public in the same way our contemporaries consume Saw and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When penny dreadfuls were at their height, the British Empire was just beginning to decline. New technology threatened the way people perceived the world and WWI was only a couple of decades away.
Similarly, we now live in a time where our empire is (arguably) beginning to go into decline. New technology threatens the way people perceive the world and conflict in the Ukraine, in North Korea, in Syria and in the China Sea have potential ramifications that could again throw us into a global conflict.
It makes sense then that episodic horror shows have again become so popular. American Horror Story, Bates Motel, Hannibal, The Following—these are our penny dreadfuls and it’s exciting to have a new one.
Leland Montgomery is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and contributor to Paste.