PENNY DREADFUL Season One Post-Mortem
By Clarke Wolfe on June 30, 2014
Get it? “Post-mortem.” Because of dead people! OK, moving on…
I will be the first to admit, I was the most skeptical of Penny Dreadful. The season one trailer was every awful horror cliche you could think of. Lots of quick cuts of sex, people doing weird body contortions, a woman scared and praying beneath a crucifix. No thanks! I’m all set. But Showtime rather cleverly released the pilot to anyone who was interested on their website before the network premiere and as I watched I thought, “Well, this isn’t bad!” A weekend of house sitting and half the eight episode season later I was hooked on what proved to be one of the best genre shows of the year. And, despite the term “penny dreadful” meaning “a cheap, sensational comic or storybook,” the series managed to not run off the rails into mid-season Ray Donovan crazy-town and actually told a coherent, complicated and graphic genre story. Sure, Penny has a flair for the dramatic, but I would argue it shies away from the campiness that was present in comparable series’ like American Horror Story or Hemlock Grove.
While the entire cast of the series has completely won me over (I’ll admit, Dorian Gray took the longest but eventually I came around) I think both Eva Green and Josh Hartnett deserve some major accolades. First, Hartnett for fleshing out what, on paper, could have been the biggest throwaway character of them all. I am of the age where I remember “teen heartthrob Josh Hartnett” with his messy bowl haircut, big brown eyes and a bunch of terrible movies. I wasn’t into it. But Hartnett has brought Ethan Chandler to life with the utmost complexity, masculinity and sensitivity in a way that I never saw coming. He is powerful and strong and yet he is also completely broken and so very lost. The Chandler character is also the perfect execution of the human side of the Lycan mythology, a signal that series creator John Logan really has a handle on this universe, a feat that is vital to the success of this kind of show as it could easily veer off into a ridiculous territory.
I also need to pay some praise to Eva Green. There is no doubt that she is a fearless actress. Even though 300: Rise of an Empire was incredibly silly, and even though her character was completely over-the-top, Green went for it the way she’s not afraid to go for everything when she’s on camera and I greatly respect that. However, here, like Hartnett, she plays the duality of Vanessa Ives in such a way that proves what a diverse and seasoned actress she really is. I believe Ives to be weak, hopeless and frail just as much as I believe her to be sexual, possessed and powerful and that is all thanks to the real life woman behind the character.
Ryan Turek at ShockTillYouDrop.com wrote an editorial about Penny making exorcism scary again and I couldn’t agree more. If 2013 was the year of the witch, why was Hollywood and horror trying to make 2014 the year of The Devil? Beats me, because attempts like Devil’s Due and the NBC miniseries adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby failed to ignite the Satanic sub-genre. But, a dash of possession and exorcism, plus the flawless performance of those scenes by Green mixed with the fact that all of the supporting players show up and, you know, act like they’re frightened at the potential loss of Vanessa Ives’ soul, helps makes it work. Actually, the commitment of the cast to the material overall, coupled with good writing and artful direction, is really what makes Penny Dreadful work.
I keep going back to that first season trailer. They told us so little about what the story was really about and who these people really were. Why hide those quality things in favor of hinting at the general monsters and tropes we all know and, most would argue, are tired of? Why not show us a thread or a glimmer of what we’re in for? Who knows, but thank goodness the show pulled through, people watched and Showtime has already ordered an expanded season two.
What about you TV viewers? Did you love the inaugural season of Penny Dreadful as much as I did? Did you see the twists and turns coming? Where do you hope the series goes in season two? Are there any additional literary characters you hope to see? Let’s talk it out in the comments below!