I don't spend as much time on the Web as I used to, so I was totally blindsided by Penny Dreadful, the new TV series from Showtime. Someone had just told me that it was good and that I should watch it. I didn't even bother reading up on it before hand. I figured that it’d be something like Grimm, or Sleepy Hollow; light, pseudo-horror, action-adventure-ish.
Penny Dreadful is NONE of those things.
Apparently, a “penny dreadful” is a Victorian era colloquialism that referred to sensational pulp fiction novels that were popular at the time. They cost a penny and were basically what Young Adult fiction is to kids today – escapist entertainment. Their serial nature generally meant that the stories were necessarily overly dramatic and exaggerated, but at the time, they were the best diversion you could find (or at least the one that didn't involve some sort of venereal disease).
The Showtime TV series is similar in that it is hugely sensational, greatly melodramatic, and pure escapism. It’s awesome.
Though the series doesn't premiere until May 11th, Showtime premiered the show on YouTube last week. They basically offered Episode 1 to people for free! Of course, since this isn't a watered down Young Adult novel with a PG rating, you’re going to have to sign in that you’re over 18. You know, ‘cause, Showtime. This is the channel that brought you Family Business, the show about Seymore Butts and friends and their adventures in porn.
This time, though, it’s not the boobs that give it the R rating, but the body parts. You watched Hannibal? This show’s far more gory and dark than anything I've seen in that one. There’s a subplot about an unknown killer who tore two people apart. You’re sitting there minding your own business, listening to the exposition delivered by the two policemen on screen and BAM! Two people. Apart.
Then there’s the whole body snatching thing. If you’re familiar with John Landis’ movie Burke and Hare (or on the West Port murders, on which it was based) then you know that in the 19th century there was a huge market for cadavers to perform autopsies on. With the rising interest in medical technology and an increase in the number of medical students, doctors needed bodies to demonstrate procedures and dissection with. The show happens in that environment.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In the first episode we’re introduced to a few characters. The first is Vanessa Ives (the beautiful-despite-resting-duckface, Eva Green), a mysterious woman who approaches cowboy, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), about needing a gun for hire to do a job. Chandler accepts and Ives introduces him to Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton). The three then proceed to an opium den where there’s a whole lot of talk in a foreign language with some strange people (psst… vampires) who then try and kill them, but who are eventually killed by them instead. Looking for clues, they bring one of the bodies to one of the aforementioned medical students who like to dissect things (Harry Treadway).
The first episode isn’t really what uou'd expect of a first episode. There’s very little explained. You’re very much dropped right into the thick of things and you follow along as Green and Dalton try and recruit Hartnett and Treadway into the fold. You’re not even told some of the characters’ names till the end (it’s a good thing, ‘cause the reveal was great, even if you've already figured it out).
The series is sort of like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in that it’s taken characters from the Victorian era’s literature and creates a mash-up. These are all characters that are separated from their society in some way and are watching the world through a unique perspective; a common theme of alienation. It’s a great hook, and the title of the show is odd sounding at first, but when you realize that, it’s so apt that it’s delicious! And it works. It works really, really well.
In “Night Work,” the first episode, we only meet one literary character, while Eva Green and the rest of the cast play characters that were written specifically for the show. I’m excited to see how they work in the others like Dorian Gray, and Mina Harker from Dracula. Not to mention Billie Piper. It’s been too long since Rose Tyler was in anything. Since the premiere on May 11th will be the first episode airing, I’ll have to wait until “Séance” comes out on the 18th to continue the series. It’s an iffy move on the part of the show-makers to release early, but damned if it didn't pique my interest in a show I’d never heard of.
Score one for word of mouth!