A Penny Dreadful is a type of British fiction that appeared in the 19th century that usually featured lurid serial stories appearing in parts over a number of weeks, each part costing one penny. So it isn’t hard to understand why Showtime would call their new horror series by that name. But while it will cost you more than a penny to watch, it’s on a pay-cable network, after all, Showtime is showing the first episode for free. And it’s absolutely brilliant. Series creator John Logan has taken classic Victorian horror that is public domain, and created a sort of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen-esque world where characters from books written in that period … Dracula, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde … all exist in the same universe. The horrors are real. And woven into the same dark tapestry.
Penny Dreadful is set in Victorian England, and stars Josh Hartnett as American Wild West showman Ethan Chandler, a gunslinger and performer cut from the same cloth as Buffalo Bill Cody, and other Wild West hucksters. Chandler is performing abroad, in London, when he’s approached by the mysterious Vanessa Ives. Ives needs someone of Chandler’s skill with firearms to aid her employer, Sir Malcolm Murray, in finding his daughter Mina, who has vanished without a trace. But as the episode progresses, we see there’s quite a bit more going on than just Mina’s disappearance.
Eva Green plays Vanessa Ives, who at first appears to be a spiritualist, but we get the sense that so much more is going on with her, as she is described as “the heart of Penny Dreadful.” Timothy Dalton plays Sir Malcolm Murray, who is organizing a band of heroes to take on the things lurking in London’s shadows, and he is as wonderful as only Timothy Dalton can be. And Billie Piper is mentioned in the credits, making her, along with Dalton, the second Doctor Who alum to star, but she isn’t seen in the first episode.
Overall, I thought this first episode was fantastic. Maybe the fact that I watched it in the wee hours of the night, with rain and thunder and lightning all around me, put me in the mood. But there were some very good and genuine scary moments and I jumped more than once, something that most horror series of late can’t seem to do. And because it’s Showtime, you get your full-on nudity. Yes, I know Game of Thrones has its nudity on HBO, but I was just remembering how even the first episode of Stargate SG-1 way back when couldn’t escape the nude bomb. Anyway … and while the gore doesn’t just fly fast and loose, it is there.
I love a good horror series. Sometimes I even like a bad one. And we pretty much have our pick right now. The CW brought back Supernatural for a new season and is even getting a spinoff; the El Rey Network is giving us From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series; and word is that a Friday the 13th series, with Jason Voorhees himself, is coming down the pike. But Penny Dreadful has the potential to be the pack leader. It’s scary, and the setting is one that promotes and feeds horror. There’s just no horror like Victorian horror. In an era where the British were perceived to be at their most civilized, comes a most uncivilized threat.
The website Goodreads even has a Penny Dreadful book club underway where you can read the books that inspired the series and talk about them with other readers.
Penny Dreadful premieres May 11 on Showtime, with the series to air on Sunday nights. But for a limited time you can watch the first episode right now for free on Showtime and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful site.