[Review] - Penny Dreadful, Season 1 Episode 1, "Night Work"

Courtesy of Neal Street Productions
On paper, it would be very difficult for me not to enjoy Penny Dreadful. Combining my favourite historical period (the Victorian), my favourite literary period (see previous), my favourite Bond (Timothy Dalton), and a literary sub-genre in which I find myself endless enamored (the co-existence of public domain characters in a single shared universe). So, I was hopeful, but wary. My recent experience with television series I've been anticipating has almost entirely been met with disappointment. I needed something to keep my faith alive. Happily, after the first hour of John Logan's public domain-infused adventure, my fears were for not.

Logan has crafted (after developing the idea for somewhere near 16 years, apparently) a love song to the gothic romances of the Victorian era, and a deeply atmospheric, emotionally charged story that crackles with both promise and mood. A piece infused with character, driven by tension and sprinkled with the familiar. It is a world I will be very comfortable visiting over the next seven weeks.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that hit you like a meat hook to the cheek.


The biggest challenge facing Logan will be overcoming the familiar. Victor Frankenstein, conducting his experiments in secret, but making his motivations anything but, is not given introduction until the final moments of the episode, but it is immediately obvious who he is. Because some of these characters, and this setting, and this general principality has been returned to repeatedly over the last 100-150 years (depending on the novel), Logan will be expected to say something new, to discover an as of yet unstrung string of narrative to explore. Otherwise, the audience will grow tired from the expectancy.

I feel it's a solid sign that he is aware of this, considering that he has chosen to populate his core cast with original creations. This is a smart move. It means that the audience must become engaged by their hidden agendas and personal mysteries. There is no net of literary canon to fall back on, no preconceived notions to draw out a yawn. So, we are introduced in short measure to Eva Green as Vanessa Ives, Josh Hartnett as Ethan Chandler and Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm Murray, and each brings with them a unique darkness. Chandler, set up to be our audience surrogate, is an American gunslinger, running from some past by hiding out in a traveling Wild West show. The enigmatic Ives, a medium and person of religious entanglement, draws him into Sir Malcolm's hunt, during which we meet this world's version of a vampire, which are not the standard model, and far from the seductive foreign aristocracy of Stoker's novel. They, like many of the elements at play here, are corruptive and petrified. There is a layer of etched on grime on every surface, a coat of dirt caked on every face.

The series is clearly a product of it's time, a time when television is being recognized for it's abilities to tell tales in the long form, with style and substance. While it lacks the unrestrained style of Hannibal or the clear and singular intent of True Detective, Penny Dreadful is self assured and confident. And, bucks the trend of sex equaling maturity. Nary a boob was seen, and sexuality was an absent element (the lone sex scene was vacant and frigid). There was some male nudity, a change from the ordinary, and of the static and clinical variety. For it's style and swagger, the series is oddly asexual, especially for a show on Showtime. It's a refreshing, and very Victorian sensibility. I hope it's a trend that continues, to throw off the idea that sexposition is the only way to keep the audience interested. Sex is distracting, and this is a show that appear to require your attention to be focused.

There is a lot left unsaid in this episode, to the episode's benefit. There are long speeches too, but much is left to glares and silence, allowing the mood to drive the scene. The direction, cinematography and lighting were implacably certain, the shots coordinated with beautiful precision. The way shots were framed, especially anytime that Eva Green's eyes were the focus, felt like the cinematic equivalent of the long wordy passages that populate the source material. There is a deliberation at work, a pacing that understands the fine line between letting something play out and letting something linger and spoil. What needed to move briskly did so, and what needed to unfold was allowed to. Take the final sequence, of Frankenstein entering his lab, adjusting his equipment, and being plunged into darkness. The fastidiousness of that sequence was beautiful. The slow reveal of the creation, the delicate emergence of the personality, again done largely in silence, allowed the audience's preconceptions time to wither in their minds and be overtaken by the realization that, for now, this is no monster.

The plot to this pilot was fairly minimal, being more interested (and as a result, more interesting) in introducing these characters, their motivations, and what will drive them through the coming weeks. Ives, an independent woman, is haunted by a larger darkness than just the invisible enemy her prayers are meant to ward off. Chandler is a better man that he allows himself to believe, and his curiosity is off set only by his cowardice. Sir Malcolm, a obligatory Big Game Hunter having carved out his fame in Darkest Africa, searches for his daughter Mina, whose associations we already know. Malcolm drives the plot, in assembling these characters and introducing them to their terrors. Add to that the young Doctor Frankenstein, whose view of science has a very narrow scope, and a more tormented groups of souls we've not seen on screen in some time. The grazing of a plot introduced here is that some fiend has taken to dismembering the indigent of the city (a city still under the specter of Jack the Ripper, of course). With murder most foul, monsters abound, and obsession the driving force in these character's lives, I expect grand adventure in the coming weeks. And I'm very much looking forward to that.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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