Penny Dreadful, starring Timothy Dalton, Eva Green, and Josh Hartnett as adventurers piecing together a ghastly and possibly supernatural conspiracy in Victorian London, is a wonderful surprise, provided you have a high tolerance for gore and will go wherever the show’s delightfully absurd story takes you. Set around the time of Jack the Ripper’s murder spree, the show’s first episode kicks off with a horrifying but artfully elided atrocity and continues from there. London is terrorized by butchers: not just the Ripper, but a mysterious band of cult-like murderers and kidnappers whose motives are unknown. An adventurer, Sir Malcolm Murray (Dalton) is determined to rescue his daughter, who apparently was abducted by the fiends; he’s joined by his empathic and darkly elegant partner Vanessa Ives (Green), his ominously quiet valet Sembène (Danny Sapani), and an American cowboy named Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a lost soul with amazing gunfighting skills who was recruited from a Wild West show.
Created by screenwriter and playwright John Logan (Rango, Gladiator, RKO 281), this Showtime drama has been described as a horror-fiction riff on Alan Moore’s comic The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a mash-up that put characters from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Dracula, Tom Sawyer, and the Sherlock Holmes stories together in the same fictional space. And it is that, sort of. I realize I’m being evasive here, but with reason: Part of the fun in tonight’s pilot comes from deducing which sources Logan is pilfering, then appreciating that he’s not just dropping references — that he’s rethinking and, in a sense, reanimating these old stories and characters. Though Showtime’s own production materials have given away some homages that won’t happen till next week, I’ll be vague and brief here. I hope to revisit the program at greater length after its second episode, which is one of the most surprising and engrossing hours of TV I’ve seen since the pilots for Hannibal and The Americans.
For now, here’s a short rave: Penny Dreadful is a handsomely produced hybrid, mixing supernatural horror, detective fiction, and the production values of an Oscar-baiting historical drama (the sets and costumes are Boardwalk Empire quality), but it has a refreshingly old-fashioned approach. Its greatest and most surprising virtue is its sincerity. At no point does the show seem overly concerned with outsmarting viewers or putting air quotes around its situations or characters. On the contrary, the show drops subtle clues that can be considered spoilers if you’ve read all the works of fiction that have fed Logan’s imagination — such as when the adventurers enlist a young surgeon played by Harry Treadaway to do an autopsy on a creature they slew in combat and he drops a stray reference to his interest in “galvanism” — but we never feel as though we’re seeing John Logan’s reading list. The makers of Penny Dreadful are fond of smart, sexy banter and florid, quasi-theatrical monologues, but there’s nothing self-conscious about the way they shoot the material or the way the actors perform it. Logan, who scripted every episode, understands that there’s a difference between acknowledging shared points of cultural reference and winking at the viewer. The characters have been fully thought out in terms of psychology, in such detail that you’d find them interesting even if they weren’t battling a monstrous and probably supernatural conspiracy. They have secrets, blind spots, and what a 21st-century person might call “issues.” They seem like real people, and the more surprises and secrets they reveal, the more you appreciate how grounded they are in the ancient and solid pleasures of drama. This becomes even more clear during the final five minutes of tonight’s pilot and in certain scenes from next week’s.
This is also a lovingly wrought series. Every frame is intelligently composed, lit, and decorated, every camera move is purposeful and sometimes startling (such as the way a shot in next week’s episode begins on closeup of a dead person’s hand clutching an apple, then pans along the forearm until you realize it’s no longer attached to anything). It is also an unapologetically sensual show, and I’m not just saying that because it has graphic sex and gender-balanced nudity. Like Hannibal, Penny Dreadful has a painter’s appreciation for textures of all kinds: naked flesh (both intact/living and dismembered/dead); fedoras and corsets and fingerless gloves; the gray dawn light of the London waterfront; the hellish glow of gas lamps; rain gleaming on cobblestones. Every few minutes there’s a just-because-we-can grace note: a long shot of a silhouetted figure emerging from a swirling fog bank; an uncomfortably long closeup of Dalton’s anguished face; tight shots of Green’s elegant hands fanning Tarot cards across a tabletop. I watched the first two episodes twice, the first time for the story, the second time because I wanted to luxuriate in the world Penny Dreadful creates.