One thing is certain about Showtime's new series Penny Dreadful: it is a spectacle. This is entirely fitting, since every deliciously indulgent scene is crafted with obvious obsession for its setting in Victorian London. Reeling from the onslaught of Modernity, London is traumatized by industrialization and terrorized by the horror of Jack the Ripper, whose return is trumpeted in newspapers hawked on every filthily gorgeous street corner in the aftermath of the gory opening scene.
With sets as meticulous as Queen Victoria herself, Showtime's new series is always visually stunning. It's some of the most beautiful television today, even compared to Game of Thrones. But like the illusions peddled by the mediums, magicians, sharpshooters and thespians of Penny Dreadful, the show is best enjoyed by getting caught up visually and not thinking too deeply about what exactly is going on.
Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, Dorian Gray and vampires all collide in this mash-up of horror franchises. It's an irresistibly fun premise, uncomfortably similar to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Unfortunately, especially because the monsters are so visually interesting, the series may suffer from cultural monster fatigue. Between the zombies of The Walking Dead and the vampires and everything else of True Blood, we're simply saturated with monster shows right now. The biggest shock I have felt from this unsettling and violent show was when a pack of wolves failed to morph into the werewolves I was fully expecting.
Penny Dreadful has been criticized for not having a sense of humor about itself, but it does border on the ridiculous. As if Dorian Gray, Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, Allan Quatermain (renamed Sir Malcolm, perhaps for copyright reasons), and Dracula's Mina Harker were not enough, the main characters are also joined by an American sharpshooter who won the Indian Wars, a prostitute with a heart of gold, and a beautiful, willful medium whose vulnerability is also her gift—visions of another, spiritual world. The show is worth watching for Eva Green alone, who portrays the clairvoyant Vanessa Ives.
That's a lot of stereotypes to juggle with a straight face. Yet Penny Dreadful attempts to do just that, never stopping to dwell on its own loveliness or absurdity, lurching forward without breaking the tension caused by asking the audience to suspend so much disbelief with at least a little post-modern self-consciousness.
Creator John Logan originally envisioned Penny Dreadful as the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Because their relationship is the most engaging—the first interaction between creator and "monster" is one of the most touching scenes in all of TV this year—it might have been better to keep it simple. Instead, with so many storylines that hinge on the withholding of information, from its characters and from the audience, it can be exhausting to keep track of everything you know and don't know, especially when all you really want to do is savor the gorgeous—and gory—scenery.
Penny Dreadful airs on Showtime at 9 p.m. Sundays. Learn More about the show here.
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