The first episode of Penny Dreadful does a number of things right, making me hopeful for the future of this series.
1. The atmosphere is perfect: dense, Gothic, surreal and unsettling. The camera work is fluid and imaginative, and the grimy London settings are really well designed, almost expressionist at times. I was particularly impressed by the scenes in the gentlemen's club, shot from a high angle, and laid out in a curious Victorian grid-pattern.
2. The characters range from predictable but very welcome, to genuinely unique. Timothy Dalton is the former: a generic British adventurer, about equally suggestive of Alan Quatermain, as seen in Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Sir Richard Francis Burton, real-life explorer extraordinaire. But the pink-haired Egyptologist is a character I've never quite seen before. His dialog is colorful, erudite and truly off-beat.
3. The dialog, now that we're on the subject, is literate and dense. This alone would make the show worth watching. There's a Victorian flamboyance about it, but also some real intellectual content. When's the last time you heard the word "outré" spoken by a character in a TV series?
4. The pace, the steady evolution of the plot, are a refreshing change. Too many shows are forced to rush ahead because they're not really about anything. Moment-to-moment activity is all they've got. Penny Dreadful feels like it's building up something more than that. (Time will tell.)
5. Finally, a very welcome omission: the shortage of jump-scares. There's really just one, and it's placed in such a way that it's almost a spoof of itself. Several other situations, which most shows would have exploited for a cheap shock, are handled with admirable subtlety. There is some gore, but no more than needed to establish a seriously scary tone, a sense of danger.
Penny Dreadful isn't exactly going where no entertainment has gone before. It's clearly 'inspired by' two previous efforts. Most obviously, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a comic that came off rather poorly on the big screen. But also the very under-rated film Van Helsing, which brilliantly re-imagined the classic horror movies of the 1930s, but failed to find an audience perhaps because of its highly energetic style.
Penny Dreadful seems to have learned from both of these sources. Where League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was lightweight and loose with logic, Penny Dreadful is atmospheric and well-plotted. Where Van Helsing was kinetic and flamboyant, Penny Dreadful is quietly creepy.
All in all, it's off to a great start. Let's hope the producers can continue 'in the same vein.'
UPDATE: Closing in on the end of the 2nd season, my admiration for this series continues to grow. The atmosphere of Victorian menace is denser than ever. The characters more flamboyant, the dialog more poetic. I'm not sure where the story is going, or, indeed, if it needs to be headed for any specific destination, when every moment of it is so enjoyable. Rating enthusiastically unchanged: a solid 9 out of 10.
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