TV Picks: 'Penny Dreadful,' 'Carbonaro Effect,' 'Let the Fire Burn'

TV critic Robert Lloyd likes Showtime's 'Penny Dreadful,' a stately horror show

"Penny Dreadful" (Showtime, Sundays). John Logan, the screenwriter of “Hugo,” “Skyfall,” “Gladiator” — and, just to confuse you, of the Tony-winning Mark Rothko play, “Red” — created this well-dressed and enacted, perversely inviting mad monster party in which figures and types from Victorian sensationalistic fiction (and sensational history) converge on London in 1891. There are ghosts and ghouls, the undead, the once-dead and the merely pale; Frankenstein is here and, more surprisingly, so is Dorian Gray, of portrait fame. The battle is not so much between the dark and the light, in the usual dichotomy, as between the dark and the less dark, or the dark and almost light. Although it is at times predictable in the way that all horror stories are by now predictable, it is splendid enough, in the making and the acting. (I say this as no special fan — though no foe, either — of the relevant genres; but I got into it.) In its polyglot peopling — or monstering — it resembles Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's comic “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," which put Captain Nemo and Doctor Jekyll into a boat with Mina Harker and the Invisible Man, but is also kin to the old Universal Pictures pictures in which Frankenstein's monster rubbed impossibly broad shoulders with Dracula and the Wolfman, and, for that matter, to Toho Studios' adversarial teaming of King Kong and Godzilla and the like. Crazy — but, after all, why not? A high-performing cast, each character bearing some psychic burden or dark secret, includes Timothy Dalton as a titled explorer; Eva Green as his pale, vibration-sensing associate; Josh Hartnett as a Buffalo Bill knockoff, good with a gun; Billie Piper as a tubercular dockside rose; Harry Treadaway as young Dr. Frankenstein; and Reeve Carney as Gray. Some will find the pace pokey, but it keeps dramatically believable what might, in less careful hands, easily grow ridiculous.

"The Carbonaro Effect" (TruTV, Thursdays). A sweet-tempered cousin to A&E's somewhat nastier prank-magic series "Don't Trust Andrew Mayne." Personable actor-illusionist Michael Carbonaro expands his hidden-camera "Magic Clerk" segments from "The Tonight Show" into a series I approached with middling interest and left with admiring delight. Magic on television is a strange thing, to be sure, since TV has the power to fool us easily, showing only the pictures it wants us to see. But magicians do the same thing, after all — in a room with witnesses — and the great ones remain astounding even when you know the trick. Like with mathematical word problems, Carbonaro takes the bones of an illusion — the thing that comes out of the thing that couldn't possibly contain it, the card that moves from here to there, the man who goes into a box and returns from the back of the theater — and dresses them in common, real world, ordinary-business situations: a mail shop, a hotel lobby, a supermarket. Hilarity, amazement, baby chicks ensue.

"Let the Fire Burn" (PBS, Monday). Jason Osder's masterfully directed — which is to say, edited — 2013 documentary comes to television as part of the PBS series "The Independent Lens." Composed entirely of archival footage, without explanatory or identifying titles, it tells the story of the long-fraught relations and final confrontation, in May 1985, between the city of Philadelphia and the people of MOVE, a (still extant, to some extent) back-to-the-Earth, mostly African American "revolutionary" group that established a fortified camp among the old wooden row houses of West Philadelphia — three square blocks of which would finally be burned to the ground in a deadly attempt to evict them. If it is not clear every second who is speaking or what cause led to which effect, it is clear enough, but confusion is also a quality of such confrontations, and of the time. Osder, creditably, does not try to crack the case open. He is less interested in a singular truth than in a counterpoint of Truths, of irreconcilable points of view and testimonies, some self-deluding, some self-protecting, some penetrating, some maddening. There is earnestness on every side, and culpability. It has the double effect of breaking news and an almost narcotic timelessness. The clips, coming both from the scene and the investigation into the scene, present their own patchwork of noise and quiet, reflection and rant — a musical structure Christopher Mangum's score artfully, and subtly, reinforces.

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