The year is 1891 – three years after the discovery of the last known victim of infamous serial murderer Jack the Ripper – and another woman has been found dead. Her body ripped to pieces, chunks of blood and viscera splattered across the interior of the Whitechapel tenement in which she and her daughter once lived. Is Jack back? Is a copycat killer stalking the streets of East London? Or is someone – or something – less-than-human responsible for the murder?
Meanwhile, aging explorer Sir Malcolm Murray and Vanessa Ives, a powerful medium, seek the assistance of American sharpshooter-cum-traveling circus performer, Ethan Chandler, fresh off the boat from the United States, in order to help find Sir Malcolm’s missing daughter, Mina Murray.
“Penny Dreadful” lives in the nebulous space between fact and fiction – showrunner John Logan (award-winning screenwriter of “Gladiator” and “The Aviator”)’s version of Victorian London is such that historical figures like the aforementioned Jack the Ripper are able to co-exist alongside such literary creations as Mary Shelley’s Doctor Frankenstein and his own eponymous monster. The show is, essentially, a remix of British horror stories from the 19th century which are now in the public domain (think Alan Moore’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”), bringing characters from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (and many other stories) together for a unique fantasy-horror show with the historical specificity of something like “Deadwood.”
Logan is deeply interested in every aspect of what’s going on both historically and culturally in London during this period, blurring the lines not only between fact and fiction, but between so-called “high art” and what would have been considered lowbrow entertainment at the time. For example, the title of the show itself (“Penny Dreadful”) was a pejorative term used during the 19th century to describe ongoing series published in weekly parts – usually focusing on detectives, criminals, or supernatural entities – each costing a penny, which served essentially the same purpose then as television shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” does today.
Logan embraces the more sensational elements of the stories he’s remixing and retelling – good werewolves scrap with evil vampires in an epic battle which brings the show’s final season to a close, and would feel right at home on MTV’s “Teen Wolf” (this isn’t a knock by the way, “Teen Wolf” is an incredibly fun and enjoyable show in its own right) – while also integrating and paying homage to various works of literary fiction and poetry in a mish-mash of sensibilities, creating something new and different out of older, well-worn parts.
Despite featuring a long list of fantastic characters from many of the greatest stories ever written, it speaks to the show’s success that one of its most compelling and fascinating figures is an original character created specifically for the show, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) – an expert medium whose abilities weigh heavily on her, taking a toll on her mental and physical well-being. Green portrays Vanessa and her struggle wonderfully, both in the show’s quieter, more introspective moments and through several show-stopping, no-holds-barred sequences – it’s the performance of a lifetime from one of our greatest (and most undervalued) actors that ranks among the best ever to grace the silver screen (or any screen, really). To see just how much “Penny Dreadful” demanded of its lead actress, look no further than the 4th episode of the show’s 3rd and final season, “A Blade of Grass,” a bottle episode in which Vanessa remembers time spent as a prisoner in a mental institution, locked away in a padded room where her past, her present, her dreams, and her nightmares all bleed together in one of the finest hours of TV this century.
To say Green’s performance is the best of the bunch is especially impressive considering how incredibly good everybody else in this show is on a week-to-week basis – a close second is Rory Kinnear as Frankenstein’s monster (or John Clare, as he eventually comes to be known), playing a much more complex version of the monster than we’re used to seeing depicted on screen, hewing much closer to Mary Shelley’s original text. Former Bond actor Timothy Dalton, Wes Studi, and Simon Russell Beale also give stand-out performances as Sir Malcolm Murray, Kaetenay, and the delightful Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle, respectively.
The circumstances surrounding the show’s final season remain slightly contentious, ending abruptly and without warning after its 3rd season – our heroes spread across the globe for much of the season – leaving a bad taste in the mouths of many fans. Thankfully, news of the show’s return surfaced last year in the form of a new spin-off series, “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels,” which is currently in production, slated for release in 2020. It’s a totally new story however and does not feature any of the characters from the first 3 seasons.
“Penny Dreadful” is somehow as good, or greater, than the sum of its parts – even though those parts include several of the greatest works of fiction ever written – aided by a killer cast, tonnes of moody atmosphere, and John Logan’s Sorkin-esque approach to scripting (with sole writing credit throughout most of the series), bringing everything together into a cohesive whole with its own unique voice and perspective. “Penny Dreadful” is one of the greatest (most underrated) shows of the 21st century.
Penny Dreadful: Series Review
- Writing - 9.5/109.5/10
- Storyline - 8.5/108.5/10
- Acting - 9.5/109.5/10
- Music - 10/1010/10
- Production - 10/1010/10