TV Review: Showtime’s ‘Penny Dreadful’ Is Anything But

Showtime’s new horror/drama series Penny Dreadful is a must watch, as long as you leave the lights on.

Named for the lurid, cheap, and popular fictions of 19th century Britain, Penny Dreadful combines familiar characters from classic horror tales with new and interesting creations. While the idea of a gothic horror tale that references Dracula, Frankenstein, and other mainstays of the genre comes with its own preconceived expectations, Penny Dreadful mostly subverts all of them by keeping its action and story grounded.

“Night Work,” the series premiere (which you can watch here now for free), immediately plunges viewers into sinister and scary world. We watch a mother and her daughter fall victim to such terrible butchery that the locals believe Jack the Ripper has returned. Of course, we know better, that what must be a supernatural being is at work. Enter Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and Miss Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). Murray is on a quest to find his missing daughter Mina, who he believes to be abducted by or fallen prey to vampires. The enigmatic Miss Ives is obviously hiding a terrible secret, something we glean from her frightening visions of upside crosses that spill spiders and her aloof manner. The duo enlist the aid of an American traveling entertainer and sharpshooter, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), to raid a suspected lair where they find not Mina, but a powerful vampire with secrets carved beneath his skin. In the process they also pull in local doctor, Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), known for his different interests and a hidden agenda.

With a description such as this, we could easily expect Penny Dreadful to veer off into more campy territory to smooth out the edge, such as its distant cousin, ABC’s Once Upon A Time. Instead, Penny Dreadful keeps its story firmly grounded by not making the monsters the starts, but focusing on the human angles. At its core, the first episode is about a father’s search for his missing daughter, who’s happened to fall into a darkness that few know exist. Dr. Frankenstein’s “monster” bears no resemblance to the green, mountainous lug we’ve come to expect. Rather, the ambitious and lonely doctor reanimates a simple man who wants to desperately understand what happened to him.

Penny Dreadful also benefits from a wealth of acting talent. Timothy Dalton gives a compelling performance as the driven Sir Malcolm, filling his scenes with a gruff purpose. Eva Green fills the screen with an enigmatic beauty that barely contains darkness. In contrast, there’s subtlety and warmth from Harry Treadaway and Rory Kinnear as Frankenstein and his monster, respectively. The only weak link so far is Josh Hartnetts’s swagger filled Chandler, but he hasn’t been given that much to do as of yet.

Penny Dreadful is highly recommended. Just remember to check under your bed before you go to sleep.

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