Penny Dreadful has tremendous prestige behind it.
This lavish gothic drama comes from Skyfall’s John Logan, is produced by Sam Mendes, with episodes directed by The Orphanage’s JA Bayona, and brings together the genre’s most iconic monsters.
So we were disappointed to see this beautifully shot, well-cast show stumble so quickly. The first few episodes lurch around like Universal’s Frankenstein’s monster in search of a tone, but it’s worth sticking around.
American carnival sharp-shooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is recruited by the mysterious Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and the determined Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) to help them find Malcom’s daughter Mina.
Dr Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) lends his medical expertise when he’s not being hunted by his creation (Rory Kinnear), while Vanessa is bewitched by the charming Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney). But why is Vanessa such an important part of this mystery?
It’s tempting to blame the success of American Horror Story for the skittish and dull first few episodes. That series showed that grim horror and delirious high camp can blend, but Logan’s attempts to mash tones aren’t quite successful.
There’s something appealing about the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen quality; watching Treadaway’s twitchy, pallid Victor alongside Dalton’s fiery Malcolm is compelling, but often frustrating, and storylines suffer. Dorian Grey is a languid distraction, Billie Piper’s consumptive wretch never feels rounded, and the show only seems perfunctorily interested in solving its own mystery.
We’re thankful, then, for Eva Green, who carries the series so completely that it illuminates how much of the rest needs fixing. Not only does she get the biggest showstopper (channelling the spirit of Malcolm’s dead son while possessed by a demon), but the best episode of the series is devoted to her back story.
The second half of the season is much improved, as the show finally settles on a direction, and we’ll certainly be back for Penny Dreadful Season 2.
However, this could have been much more than a beautiful guilty pleasure.