Premieres Sunday, May 11 at 9pm on Showtime.
With the success of shows like American Horror Story and The Walking Dead, horror has become a new fixation for television. Yet, aside from the soapy supernatural drama of True Blood, premium cable hasn't really sunk its unrestricted teeth into the genre. Created and written entirely by Skyfall scribe John Logan, Penny Dreadful makes for a somewhat intriguing, if terribly sloppy experiment with genre.
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Set during the time of Jack the Ripper, in 1891 London, Penny Dreadful sets out to be something of a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for Victorian-era horror characters. At center of all of these mythologies is the supernatural investigator odd couple of Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Sir Malcolm Murray. Once a man who adventured in darkest Africa, Murray is now on a deeply personal quest through London's underworld to retrieve his daughter Mina (Olivia Llewellyn), who has been kidnapped by a vampiric creature. Before they head out to bust up a demonic layer, Vanessa uses her Sherlock Holmes-inspired wiles to enlist the talents of Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), an American who's been putting his skills with a gun to use by touring Europe with a wild west show. The team also employs the use of an ambitious and fearless young doctor (Harry Treadaway) to help better understand the enemy they're fighting.
Beautifully shot and wonderfully cast, Penny Dreadful excels at creating the dark and brooding mood of Victorian horror. Your eye will be fixated on everything that's laid before you, even if you don't quite get what it all adds up to. When it comes to style, the series has it in spades, but it's the substance that's lacking. The plot of Penny Dreadful is a heaping mess that plays more like a series of half-finished vignettes than a full and cohesive story. Far too much emphasis is placed on maintaining the mystery of the identities and purposes of show's impressive ensemble of characters than on actually giving them something substantive to do. Their actions seem far more driven towards furthering the mood of the piece, rather than the story.
Still, for its faults, Penny Dreadful delivers some performances that are worth the price of admission. Green is the clear stand-out as Vanessa Ives. While the script does little to define her as more than an enigmatic heroine, Green floods her with force and life. When Vanessa is possessed during an exceedingly long séance scene in the show's second episode, the actress makes a feast of the scenery, throwing every party of herself into it. Harry Treadaway also thrives in Dreadful's restrained approach to his famous character. There's an achingly delicate humanity to his face that the camera can never linger too long on.
A patchwork of stories and characters that feels sloppily sewn together, Penny Dreadful doesn't always equal the sum of its parts, but those bits can still be fascinating.