If you missed the season two premiere of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful – or, even, the entire first season – few could blame you. Despite boasting an excellent cast – including Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, and Josh Hartnett – and drawing from some of the pulpiest of 19th century fiction, it hasn’t exactly set the ratings world on fire.
The show is set in late 19th century London, and is sprinkled with characters from literature and folklore – including characters from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein and his monster(s) from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray – as well as plenty of witches, demons, and angrily-spoken Latin. Although the nature of their afflictions and affections is often supernatural in source, the characters are all merely human, which helps to add to the overall sense of fear and desperation that the show exhibits.
The first season revolves around Sir Malcolm Murray (Dalton) and his search for his kidnapped daughter, Mina. He has conscripted Vanessa Ives (Green), Ethan Chandler (Hartnett), and Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) to help him in his quest; each character, of course, is battling a unique set of internal and external problems, some known to the character and the audience, and some a mystery. Also weaving in and out of the story are the ageless Dorian Gray, the re-animated Caliban, and a cabal of Vampires infinitely more menacing than the way they are currently portrayed, a century after Stoker’s Dracula.
Season two picks up, more or less, where the first season leaves off. Although the main story arc is resolved by the end of the season, many of the main character’s problems are left unresolved, or significantly more complicated than they originally seemed. Most remaining characters are back; the only major character that does not make an appearance in the premiere is Gray, which is not unfortunate, as he is seemingly much more Christian than Dorian in the show. While the episode acts as more of a reminder of what happened the previous season, enough plot-advancing points take place that it would not be wise to skip it.
The series is shot in such a way that the viewer feels both claustrophobic and motion sick – Ives and Chandler are besieged by witches in a carriage early in the season premiere – and each episode alternates between frenetic action and slow-mounting tension. There is also a not-inconsequential amount of humour throughout the show, most often from Green and Hartnett, which provides a necessary break from the dripping blood and wailing moans.
For some reason, promotion of Penny Dreadful has been rather low-key – I only realized it had premiered because it showed up in my queue, despite having been released via Showtime on Demand and YouTube two weeks earlier. Not surprisingly, while critical reviews and award nominations have increased with the release of the second season, it premiered to about half the audience of the first season premiere, well back in the race for specialty cable dominance.
The shame of it is this show draws from the same sources that so much of nerd culture is built upon, yet it hasn’t been embraced – by any culture – as much as it should or deserves to be. So, study up on your classic literature, turn the lights down low, and be happy that you don’t live (or have died, only to live again) in 19th century London.