Wednesday, May 14, 2014

In Which I Review Penny Dreadful (1x1)

In late 19th Century London, a new type of lurid and sensational literature appeared: it was cheap (a penny) but somehow rich in quality. It was called the penny dreadful. Over the course of several weeks, readers would be treated to an evolving story that could be horrifying and (later) comedic. The Showtime writers have taken this idea (though they forgo the comedic for the horror) and adapted to the small screen, introducing classic Victorian literature characters into the real 1891 Victorian London and adding a dash of supernatural, superstition, magic, myth, and monsters. The first episode, which has been available online for awhile before the show actually premiered, is somewhere between Gothic horror and meta supernatural angst. If I'm going to jump ahead a bit and give my rating overall, I think it's a strong showing for what could be a very impressive take on monster phenomenon. The fact is, having the Dracula mythos meets the Frankenstein mythos isn't exactly new. These are stories that have been woven together before in different forms, so for the show to truly succeed it needs to take a new spin on it. I suppose this is where the introduction of the new shiny characters come in into it--original characters not found in the original literature that can act independently of the source material. Overall, I'm giving the show a check it out but with the caveat that it has the potential to go campy if they don't keep the suspense and drama high enough. 

Vanessa Ives 

We're introduced to Vanessa Ives fairly early on; she's a sort of female Sherlock Holmes, able to deduce characteristics of those with whom she interacts simply by noticing tiny little minutia. Vanessa has a deep connection to the spiritual and supernatural world; she seems to be a sort of occultist, though I think she would scoff at the notion. She obviously has a thing for cards and games and mystery, though the writers have created an interesting dichotomy with her as she is also fervently religious. Twice we see her in an almost trance-like state of prayer, praying in Latin rapidly as if the hounds of Hell are hard on her heels. There is an air of mystery to Vanessa, as both times she is seen praying, bugs literally explode from the walls and crawl on her. The second time, the cross of Jesus is turned upside down, normally a sign of evil or the Devil. We're given very little in way of character history for Vanessa; for example, why are she and Malcolm Murray so close? Does she work for him? Are they partners who reside in the same house? How did Vanessa get involved in all this? These are questions that keep me coming back, so well done writers.

Ethan Chandler 

We meet Ethan Chandler as he is performing a gun show in London. He's a trained actor who is good at telling lies and shooting straight. But Vanessa sees through all this and it's fairly obvious that his acting is just that--an act. He is sentimental, carrying a watch his father gave him and if there isn't a big story there, then I give up watching TV altogether (Chekov's Gun never lies). When he's introduced into the world of the supernatural, he doesn't blink so much as react and then blink. He's a good shot and has a good chemistry with Vanessa. Chances are we're looking at a pair of lovers before long, and Vanessa's cards tend to agree. Like Vanessa, Ethan's history is wide open and we know very little except that he's obviously drawn to the world to which he was introduced very quickly. The air of mystery isn't as heavy around Ethan as it was with Vanessa; at a stab, I'd say Ethan comes from a loving family but he lost them, went on the run, became a gun-for-hire, before giving it up and becoming part of a travel show. His main story will be in the acceptance of the supernatural and what he can offer that world that he cannot offer the "real" world.

Sir Malcolm Murray

Remember back when I blogged Dracula? Well here we go again. I seem to remember constantly questioning where Mina's father was--he would appear at random moments to prove that there was, in fact, a father, but then vanish in order for Mina to have her sexy dance time with Dracula. In Penny Dreadful, however, the father takes center stage. Malcolm is a former African explorer who has lost his daughter Mina to the vampires (I guess we can call them that, no one on the show has yet to utter the world "vampire"). I can't help but wonder what sort of things Malcolm saw in Africa and, perhaps more importantly, what he brought back. It would make for an interesting story line if Malcolm's hubris is the reason for Mina's disappearance and, I suppose, vampire-ism.

  Victor Frankenstein 

This was my one annoyance with the show so far. They tried to dance around the question of "who was the mysterious scientist with all the dead bodies?" The writers kept him from saying his name until the very last possible second, even though they wrote this poetic speech about how the only truth is the veil between life and death. I mean, it was a giant flashing neon sign that said "hello. I am Victor Frankenstein and I like resurrection."  You don't need to hide that he's Frankenstein; it's painfully obvious.

However I do like the character. Too often Frankenstein is emotional and crying over his bodies and his failures as a scientist. This is a new twist. This Frankenstein is cold, speaks rapidly, and is a bit of an asshole. I like it. And at least I was spared a, "he's alive!!" when the monster came to.

Basic plot: Malcolm and Vanessa recruit Ethan to help them suss out a vampire layer because Ethan is really good with his gun. They manage to kill some sort of uber vampire, which they take to Frankenstein who, upon examination, realizes that the corpse is covered in Egyptian hieroglyphs. There is a mystery beyond missing Mina Murray, such as the shadow world and where these monsters came from and the interpersonal connections of everyone and that's what I'll be returning for. Perhaps one of the strengths of the show is the realism of the world; Vanessa isn't wearing a mini skirt or leather pans. She's properly dressed; the world is nitty and gritty, with layers of dirt. The city looks like London int he 19th century. The realism of the real world only strengthens the supernatural horror going on below; it creates a sense of "this could happen anywhere."  According to the cast list, several more characters (including Dorian Grey) will be making an appearance so I hope they don't detract from the ones we've met so far.

Miscellaneous Notes on Night Work

--Not sure if I'll be blogging each and every single episode (it's a Sunday show and I already have on of those..)

--Gorgeous costumes and really good make up.

--Very bloody, so beware if you have an aversion to violence.

--Overall, check it out if you have time. I think it will only get stronger, or at least I hope. There is a danger of it going super campy because it is essentially a monster show, but with the mystery surrounding everything, I think it might escape the campy nature of other supernatural shows.

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