Penny Dreadful borrows its title from the 19th-century British fiction that reveled in lurid, serialized stories printed on pulp paper so as to be sold cheaply to the working class. The appeal of those stories, echoed later in the American EC Comics, resides in their forceful economy and lack of pretension; these tales were written to be bought, and the bluntness of that ambition allowed for a bracing honesty that now serves as a valuable document of British life. Showtime’s series, however, lacks such force: It’s a lush horror soap opera that more closely resembles the Universal monster sequels of the 1940s, particularly the films—such as House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein—that offered most of the company’s monster stable within one narrative. It’s also unmistakably indebted to the work of Alan Moore, particularly From Hell and, most obviously, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, though Penny Dreadful lacks Moore’s sense of play and political outrage.
Set in London in 1891, Penny Dreadful weds a variety of British literary icons with new characters that are positioned to represent the audience’s vantage point as newcomers to the convoluted conspiracy that creator John Logan has hatched. Sir Malcom Murray (Timothy Dalton, sounding uncannily like Liam Neeson) is a renowned African explorer searching for his missing daughter, Mina, whose name will tip off many as to the likely identity of her kidnapper. Helping Malcom, for reasons yet to be parceled out, is Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a powerful medium who herself recruits Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a drunk two-bit theatrical gunslinger, into their gang of paranormal detectives. One moment Ethan’s trading flirty bon mots with Vanessa, in a self-conscious homage to a similar exchange in Casino Royale, which also featured Green, and the next he’s firing bullets into the heads of the recently turned vampire minions of a master who’s yet to be revealed.
With so many derivations to work through, the series gets off to a sluggish, almost inevitably hokey start. The actors are ladled with expository scenes that require them to chew their lines like bone-dry steak. There’s a lot of talk of the hidden worlds beneath our own, and quite a few character introductions are prolonged rather than surprising. Chandler’s inclusion is a distracting mistake, the result of a pandering urge to offer American audiences a surrogate among the predominantly European actors. Hartnett’s characteristically uncomfortable mannerisms (that theoretically mysterious hunch, the mumbling) do nothing to convince us of Ethan’s stature as a Man with a Troubled Past. The vampires, which have the ivory porcelain skin of the creatures from Blade II, are otherwise drained of any distinctive danger.
Penny Dreadful takes a weird turn, though, that potentially bodes well for it. The first episode primes us for a straightforward quest narrative, but Logan and director J.A. Bayona subsequently slow the story down and allow the characters to stew in their own obsessive juices. Instantly resigned from the vampire hunting game, Chandler takes to drinking in a rundown bar near a pier, where he meets Brona Croft (Billie Piper), an Irish immigrant who’s having trouble finding “work on her feet.” Brona reports to a modeling job for a rich, strikingly youthful eccentric named Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), who seduces her despite her confession that she’s dying of consumption. Undeterred, Dorian licks Brona’s lips, which Bayona frames in an erotic and touching tight close-up (we’re allowed to feel Brona’s relief at this respite from alienation). The lovers then proceed to strip down in a sequence that walks an elegant tight-rope between softcore porn and pathos.
Still, it’s hard not to see the potential that’s frittered away. This kind of English gothic, especially as defined by Moore, is crying out for the gritty, hyper-historically textured approach that characterized David Milch’s treatment of the American West in Deadwood, or perhaps even a stripped-down aesthetic that more closely approximates the shock-and-awe tactics of the actual penny dreadfuls. Or something, anything, apart from the generic prettiness that’s come to characterize the look of a number of über-produced English costume dramas set at the dawn of the 1900s. Penny Dreadful is too neat, too tasteful and narcotizing, for a work that’s full of diseases and serial killers and classist atrocity; not a single monster, lantern, fog cloud, cobblestone, corset or candle is out of place. This kitsch leaves no marks.