TV Review: Penny Dreadful – Episode 1 – Night Work

Penny Dreadful - Vanessa Ives

Showtime’s new show Penny Dreadful has been on my radar for a little while now, and to no great surprise: A Victorian era urban fantasy show, with shades of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Written by John Logan, famed for Sweeney Todd, Gladiator, Skyfall and The Aviator? Starring Eva Green? Directed by J.A. Bayona, best known for The Orphanage? It’s a perfect storm.

Let me put you out of your misery; thanks to Sky and Showtime’s decision to make this show available digitally ahead of its TV release, I have just finished watching it, and it’s very good.

(Aside: We really need to find a better term to call this programming than ‘TV’)

Some mild spoilers ahead.

Penny Dreadful - Ethan ChandlerThe first episode, Night Work, introduces us to the world and begins to introduce its dramatis personæ, through the eyes of Josh Hartnett’s gunslinging ingénue. While he isn’t the focus of the episode, he is shaping up to be the hero of the show. Not in a simplistic way, but he is literally taking the Heroes Journey here, guided by Eva Green and Timothy Dalton’s hooded light.

While his depths are alluded to, what we initially see is his naivety to this world, this Victorian London caught between light and dark. It is his guides that have layers and depths and mysteries to them. Mysteries that, in contrast to a lot of other recent TV shows, I actually care to have revealed. I want to know; but I’m also enjoying not knowing.

The horror tropes, alluded to by the title, are there as expected, some of them pleasantly subverted. But this is not a horror show. It is a mystery show, a Victorian urban fantasy, painted with the palate of horror.

I’ll grant, it’s a well-used palate, and the show borrows heavily, not just from literature, but from past shows. But this League of Extraordinary Gentlemen meets From Hell is definitely watchable; even knowing when to lighten things a little, like with a superb turn by Simon Russell Beale.

It’ll be interesting to see how the show develops. It only has eight episodes and there are more major characters to be introduced, all plucked from the pages of Shelley, Wilde, Stoker and their contemporaries. But one episode in, I’m excited for more.

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