Review: Showtime’s ‘Penny Dreadful’ an elegantly beastly outing
Having created and shared them throughout recorded time, we are well acquainted with monsters, their forms and habits, strengths and weaknesses, ways of appearing and disappearing.
Homer and the Bible are full of awful beasties; Shakespeare gave us Caliban, Stan Lee the Hulk. Indeed, we are now in a long entertainment cycle in which fantasy and its look-alike cousin science fiction are dominant modes.
So we know the ropes. There is little that occurs in the first two hours of “Penny Dreadful,” a new period-supernatural series premiering Sunday on Showtime, with which a person who has seen, say, a dozen horror movies — possibly fewer, I am being generous — could not anticipate. But just as a joke can be funnier when you already know the punch line, anticipation does not mitigate the scare; if anything, it makes it scarier, because expectation sets you on a hair trigger.
And the execution, seductive in a stately way, is such that you might forget what you know just enough to be surprised by it anew. Once you get past its opening credits, which are tediously similar to every dark cable drama in the last, oh, five years, and acclimate to the artificial sound of its carefully proper, contraction-free Victorian dialogue, “Penny Dreadful” begins to work very well.
Like Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s comic (and its film adaptation), “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” which put Captain Nemo and Doctor Jekyll into a boat with Mina Harker and the Invisible Man, it brings famous characters and character types from 19th-century imaginative fiction into a single story, set in 1890s London. Identities are revealed with dramatic occasion, but I will just go ahead and tell you that Victor Frankenstein and Dorian Gray are here.
There are also vampires, ghosts, spirits of ancient Egypt and portents of Christian apocalypse. There are intimations of Jack the Ripper — him again! — and accompanying the usual suspects, the usual settings: The opium den. The Explorer’s Club. The fancy ball. The fog-choked alley, the misty riverside. Much of it takes place in the dark, and much of what doesn’t takes place in the gloom — “a half world between what we know and what we fear,” as one character calls it.
Created and entirely written by John Logan (“Hugo,” “Skyfall,” “Gladiator” and the Tony Award-winning Mark Rothko play “Red”), with the first two episodes directed by J.A. Bayona (“The Orphanage,” “The Impossible”), it is as chockablock with bric-a-brac as a Victorian parlor. But the elegance of its production and mostly measured pace, though it may confound those who prefer the supernatural served fast and furious, keeps the drama persuasive.
There is some blood and nastiness, to be sure. We get a little bit of sex, some nudity and occasional bad words. But the shocks are used sparingly, so that when they come they carry a full charge.
At the same time, there is none of the distaste for humanness — and so often of the female body in particular — that some modern spooky stories betray. Our heroes are sad and guilty, not always in control of themselves and possibly doomed, but they are drawn with sympathy, and even affection.
Timothy Dalton plays Sir Malcolm Murray, an African explorer like something out of H. Rider Haggard, seeking a lost child. Eva Green is his attractively pale partner in this business, overly sensitive to vibrations, Danny Sapani his so-far mute manservant.
They will or will not be abetted by Harry Treadaway as Victor Frankenstein (Rory Kinnear is touching as his creation); Josh Hartnett as an American trick shot, playing a Buffalo Bill type in a cut-rate Wild West show; Reeve Carney as Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, who besides that famous pustular portrait (offstage) has a taste for photography, if you know what I mean; and Billie Piper, of Rose Tyler fame, as a consumptive Irishwoman down on her luck and “off to look for work that a machine can’t do. Yet, anyway.”
Also passing through are Helen McCrory (you know her as Narcissa Malfoy), Anna Chancellor (“The Hour”), and, in a semi-comic turn as an eminent Egyptologist, Simon Russell Beale, so brilliant as Falstaff in 2013’s Shakespeare tetralogy “The Hollow Crown.” To him falls the line, “If one is going to engage with the primordial forces of darkness, one must expect a bit of social awkwardness.”
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA-SV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for sex and violence)
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