May 18, 2014

THE SKED Pilot + 1 Review: “Penny Dreadful”


PENNY DREADFUL:  Sunday 10PM on Showtime

Previously… on PENNY DREADFUL:  In 1890s London, a mysterious set of figures exist in a world where literature’s classic horror characters are as real as Jack the Ripper and the Industrial Revolution.  Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), a famous African explorer, is searching for his daughter Mina, who has been abducted by vampires.  Among those assisting him are Mina’s friend Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), the American ex-soldier and vaudeville sharp-shooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett)–and Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), an expert in human anatomy for his own reasons.

Episode 2:  The second chapter of John Logan’s 8-hour script introduces a pair of additional important figures.  Chandler befriends a consumptive Irish prostitute named Brona Croft (Billie Piper, from Diary of a Call Girl), one of whose clients is the ageless libertine Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), who is excited by her disease.  Acting honors for the hour, though, go without question to Eva Green, who puts on a spectacular one-woman show at the episode’s centerpiece, a seance held by the medium Madame Kali (Helen McCrory), at the home of Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale), who’s helping Murray with hieroglyphic inscriptions found on the flesh of a dead vampire.  In the course of the lengthy seance sequence, Green’s Vanessa is seemingly possessed by the spirits of an Egyptian goddess and both of Murray’s children, who bear terrible secrets about their father.  It’s a virtuoso piece of work and a reminder of how rarely Hollywood has found proper use for Green’s special talents.

Unusually for its genre these days, Penny Dreadful is as interested in atmosphere and character development as in rushing through plot twists, and only late in Hour 2 do we start to get a picture of what the series mythology is going to be about.  (Bad things would happen if the vampire/Egyptian god who has Minna got together with the goddess hitching a ride with Vanessa.)  Instead, the hour took time not just for the seance, but for an extended sequence in which Frankenstein book his surprisingly presentable creature, whom he’s named Proteus (Alex Price) for his first walk through the streets of London–although by the episode’s end, that relationship has its own violent issues.

Penny Dreadful continues to be gorgeously filmed (Episode 2, like the pilot, was directed by The Orphanage‘s J. A. Bayona), with movie-quality CG recreations of 19th-century London cityscapes, and its cast treats their fantastic roles with complete conviction.  While the series will eventually have to get to whatever its point will be, its characters are rich enough and its overall setting fascinating enough that there’s no need to hurry.

Considering the popularity of horror at the moment, and the resources Showtime has poured into its production and marketing, Penny Dreadful premiered to very mild ratings, even below the competing Veep on HBO.  That episode, however, had been available online before the official launch date, and Showtime will hope to see the series pick up some momentum.  Although the horror field is crowded on TV, Penny Dreadful is a high-quality addition.


PILOT + 1:  Horror Deluxe


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."