With its rampant poverty, criminality and abundance of human misery, the slums of 1891 Victorian London was hardly a desirable location for anyone to visit. And that’s before you encounter the real monsters.
This is the world of Penny Dreadful, the macabre brainchild of Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Logan, which first aired on Showtime. It is one where ancient monstrosities lurk just of the human periphery, waiting to lay waste to our unbelieving and modernising world and gothic literary characters stroll alongside everyday citizens. It is one that down-on-his luck American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett) finds himself thrown into when he is recruited by elderly adventurer Malcolm Murray (former Bond Timothy Dalton) and his companion, the enigmatic Ms. Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), to save his daughter Mina (Olivia Llewellyn) who has been kidnapped by Dracula. Murray’s quest to save his child and the subsequent carnage left in their wake entangles a menagerie of characters, including ambitious young medical student Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), his vengeful, displaced creation Caliban (Rory Kinnear), Murray’s mysterious and dignified servant, Sembene (Danny Sembene) and the hedonistic and eternally beautiful socialite Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney).
It ranks up with Hannibal as one of the most grotesquely beautiful television shows ever aired on mainstream television, posing questions about religion, mental health and the nature of humanity. It’s still a mystery how certain scenes evaded the censors, given their overt graphicness. With its similar plot and blending of fiction and reality, it’s also the most faithful adaptation we’ll ever see of Alan Moore’s iconic comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
The outlandishness is grounded by a cast of intriguing and complex characters, with special mention going to Eva Green, who is a tour de force in her role as Vanessa Ives, a woman tormented by a primal darkness that resides within her, fought over by two powerful, evil entities, who struggles to find solace in an uncertain world in her own self-possessed way. She provides a parallel to the aged Malcolm, as they both struggle to atone for their past sins. It also connects her to Ethan, finding herself torn between him and and the enticing Dorian. The second episode of the first season ‘ Seance’ provides one of her greatest performances, where possessed by a spirit, she wheels between three different personalities at once and must truly be seen to be believed.
Rory Kinnear gives a poignant and powerful performance as the Creature, doomed to reside on the vestiges of society as a modern Melmoth. Billie Piper shines in her dual role as pitiful prostitute Brona Croft and Lily Frankenstein, growing into one of the most compelling female villains in modern television history. Her performance peaks with a tear-jerking monologue delivered in the otherwise lagging third season. On the other hand, Simon Russell Beale offers intermittent comic relief in a mostly dark series as hapless Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle, who the group occasionally seek aid from.
Despite its high quality writing and performances, the show was woefully short-lived, with its third season being halved before being unceremoniously cancelled. This is reflected in the rushed quality of the third season, which merely straddles the bar rather than raises it like its predecessors did. However, in 2020, the show saw a brief resurgence in the form of a sequel series Penny Dreadful: City of Angels on Showtime, which relocated the action to a noir murder mystery in 1930s Los Angeles, but was just as premature. For now, all we can do is blow the dust off our boxsets and only hope that Penny Dreadful might one day be resurrected.