Entertainment

05.11.14

‘Penny Dreadful’ Is a Shameless Orgy of Blood, Gore, and Scary Fun

While it’s not the most sophisticated show on TV, Showtime’s Penny Dreadful—dripping with shocking violence, gruesome imagery, and genuine scares—is to be admired for its messy ambition.

Who knew that the golden age of TV would be so shameless?

Don’t be fooled. We’re not saying “shameful,” a la guilty pleasure schlock starring Kardashians or so-called “real” housewives. We’re referring to the rise of no-guts-no-glory television, series that throw caution to the wind and turn the dial up to 11 on daring storylines, wicked plot twists, and exploration of the outer edge of the limits a particular genre will allow.

There’s the whiplash-inducing brazen insanity of Scandal’s rapid-fire plot twists. Or there’s the giddiness with which American Horror Story expands and explodes horror tropes, having a laugh while doing it. There’s the brilliant recklessness with which Game of Thrones offs characters, not to mention the ludicrousness of the sheer number of them it asks us to invest in. Orange Is the New Black proves just how messy we like our characters, while House of Cards purports to offer high-class drama, but dresses it all up in camp.

These are some of the best, most exciting series on TV, and each is wildly different, save for the common theme that bonds them all: They are absolutely crazy. They embrace the idea that TV can and maybe even should be a wild ride, and don’t even bother to ask viewers to buckle up for it. It’s the danger—storytelling so crazy and so ambitious has the potential to be so bad—that’s the reward.

Add Penny Dreadful to that list of shameless shows. Showtime’s new horror series, which debuted Sunday night, is a gleeful—and gory—celebration of all that the genre entails. An everything-but-the-kitchen-sink series that blends supernatural surprises, operatic violence, gruesome imagery, Gothic legend, psychological creepiness, and classic jump-out-of-your-seat “Boo!” scares, Penny Dreadful’s premiere Sunday night wasn’t indicative of the most sophisticated series on TV, or even the best horror one. But there’s beauty (and good fun) to be had in its messy ambition.

The episode introduced us to American sharpshooter Ethan Chandler, played by Josh Hartnett, thus answering the question, “Whatever happened to Josh Hartnett?” (His hair is now really long. And you see his butt! So there’s that.)

Chandler is drafted by a mysterious woman named Vanessa Ives, played with slinking and sinister grace by a terrifically haunting Eva Green, and African explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) to be a hired gun on a hit. It just so happens that the hit, however, is on a clan of creepy vampire goblin creature thingys that don’t just go bump in the night, they murder anyone who happens to be awake. In addition to horrific murders that have the Victorians—Penny Dreadful is set in 1891 London—thinking that Jack the Ripper is back, these creature thingys may also be responsible for taking Sir Murray’s daughter, who has gone missing.

Speaking of monsters, we meet Dr. Frank’s in a scene that is boldlynothing like the reanimation scene in Mary Shelley’s work, but nonetheless goosebump- and hair-raising. (And even a little homoerotic and beautifully romantic.)

The fun of Penny Dreadful, though, isn’t in the plot, which, at least in Sunday night’s premiere, was sometimes confusing and even more often a bit of a drag. It’s the mash-up of terror classics it sets up, sort of like The Avengers meets 19th-century literature. About midway through the episode we’re introduced to one Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), whose experience studying the undead is called upon by Ives and Sir Murray in getting to the bottom of what these monsters are up to. Speaking of monsters, we meet Dr. Frank’s in a scene that is boldly nothing like the reanimation scene in Mary Shelley’s work, but nonetheless goosebump- and hair-raising. (And even a little homoerotic and beautifully romantic.)

Characters from Bram Stoker’s Dracula pop up, too, and the second episode sees the debut of that ageless icon Dorian Gray. Suffice it to say, though, that this is Penny Dreadful’s version of Dorian Gray—the debaucherous, down-right icky sex he has in the episode would undoubtedly make even Oscar Wilde blush. (Fun trivia: actor Reeve Carney, who plays Gray, originated the role of Spider-Man in the recent Broadway musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.)

Penny Dreadful gets its name from the sensational and lurid serials that appeared in 19th-century British papers, an apt title given the content the Showtime series conjures up. Sunday night’s episode, for example, opened with a woman being yanked into thin air and murdered by supernatural beings of some sort while sitting on the toilet for a middle-of-the-night bathroom break, giving entirely new meaning to the phrase “scared shitless.” And while that opener rouses a fright from what you don’t see, the rest of the episode trades in gore porn, as if a sanguine river flooded the show’s Victorian set.

Bloody as it is, Penny Dreadful is also rather beautiful, owing to some spectacular set design and spot-on horror imagery. Did you not get a serious case of the creepy crawlies when those hordes of spiders spilled out of the crucifix? And did you not also, in between shivers, admire how grotesquely pretty the shot was? The paradox is at the core of Penny Dreadful’s appeal, and how it gets away with its unabashed onslaught of goblins and ghouls and ghosts (oh my!) and exhaustive employment of every scare tactic in the book. It does it all with expensive-looking taste and exquisite precision, so that the series manages to be both elegant and beastly at the same time.

Today’s television landscape—at least the more desirable parts of it—is proving that it takes fearlessness in storytelling and some serious creative cajones to get, and then keep, the audience’s interest. With its shameless, bordering on exploitative, use of all that the horror genre has to offer, Penny Dreadful, at the very least, has our attention.