May 8, 2014

THE SKED Pilot Review: “Penny Dreadful”


PENNY DREADFUL:  Sunday 10PM on Showtime starting May 11 – Potential DVR Alert

Showtime’s PENNY DREADFUL is an elegant addition to TV’s horror canon.  It’s been created and its initial 8-hour season has been entirely written by John Logan, whose A-list scripts include Gladiator, The Aviator, Sweeney Todd, Rango and Skyfall, and its pilot is directed by J. A. Bayona, who was behind the camera of The Impossible and, more relevantly, The Orphanage.

The pilot eases into Penny‘s somewhat convoluted premise.  Logan imagines a London of the 1890s where historical horror exists cheek-by-jowl with the kind we consider fiction, so that vampires and Dr. Frankenstein are just as real as Jack the Ripper.  Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), a famed and fearless African explorer, along with Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), are in search of Sir Malcolm’s daughter Mina, who they believe has been captured by a vampire, in circumstances for which both feel responsible.  In pursuit of their goal, they recruit some muscle in Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), an cynical American ex-soldier who supports himself as the star of a touring “Wild West” show–and also young Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), an expert in human (and not-so-human) anatomy fascinated by the phenomenon and power of electricity.

Not much more than the basic concept is set out in the opening hour, which is more concerned with introducing the characters, getting the band together, and establishing the story’s physical setting.  Penny Dreadful, it’s quickly clear, isn’t a show that will shy away from carnage; a visit to a vampire’s lair reveals a space that looks more like the worst meatpacking plant of all time than the opulent quarters of a Dracula movie.  There’s also copious use of spiders, and mysterious hieroglyphics hidden beneath an exoskeleton.

It’s hard to know, based on the pilot, how well Penny Dreadful will hold together as storytelling, because it’s busy setting out its enigmatic credentials.  All the characters clearly have secrets, but few of them are disclosed in the near term.  What does work is the show’s style (the pilot is photographed by Xavi Gimenez with an eye to luscious rot, and designed in no-expense-spared detail by Jonathan McKinstry, with a sumptuous score by Abel Korzeniowski), and the strong cast.  Hartnett, a bit weatherbeaten from his heartthrob days and the better for it, is the closest the show has to an audience surrogate; Dalton hasn’t had such a commanding presence on screen for years; Treadaway is convincingly brilliant yet off-center, and Green is almost too well-cast as a sensuous, exotic woman of mystery (when she faces off with a vampire a foot taller than she is, you’re half-surprised the vamp doesn’t back down, whimpering in terror).  Bayona stages the old-fashioned scares lovingly–be careful when the lights go out–without winking imitation of cinema classics.  In its initial hour, Logan’s script moves crisply, and avoids the potential Who Framed Roger Rabbit? feel of a horror compendium (there’s no “Hey look, it’s Dr. Jekyll!”).

Horror is a crowded field in television right now, and in particular, Penny Dreadful overlaps with the territory of NBC’s recent Dracula.  At first glance, though, Penny seems less campy (there’s nothing like Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ faux-American accent to trouble the ears) and less likely to indulge in violence for its own sake.  The series is clearly Showtime’s effort to step into the deluxe paycable genre game that HBO has owned with True Blood and Game of Thrones, and there’s plenty of potential here for some classy, bloody fun.


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."