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The Dark, Dank World of Penny Dreadful

Photo of Darwyn Carson By Darwyn Carson | Leonard Maltin May 10, 2014 at 12:00AM

by Darwyn Carson — Victorian era pulp fiction by another name could have been Penny Awful, Penny Number, Penny Blood or Penny Horrible. The name that caught was Penny Dreadful.
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Timothy Dalton-Josh Hartnett-Penny Dreadful-680
Photo by Jonathan Hession - Courtesy of SHOWTIME

Guest post by Darwyn Carson — Victorian era pulp fiction by another name could have been Penny Awful, Penny Number, Penny Blood or Penny Horrible. The name that caught was Penny Dreadful. It all added up to luridly explicit stories printed on pulp paper to be woven into cheaply bound booklets.

Popular in the 19th century these stories played out over weeks at a time and were a major source of entertainment for the working class adolescent—mostly young boys—of the period. The plots varied, but the aim was the same; to scare and to enthrall. Most importantly: to leave the reader wanting more so that he couldn’t wait to shell out another penny the next week, and the week after that and the one after that, to find out what happened next.

Harry Treadaway-Penny Dreadful-485
Photo by Jonathan Hession - Courtesy of SHOWTIME

These tales weren’t for the faint of heart; they were violent and sordid.  Penny Dreadful series consultant Dr. Matthew Sweet writes:   “Aside from violent incident, the Penny Dreadful had another defining quality: giddy freedom in the casting department. In The Dark Woman; or, Plot And Passion, for instance, the fictional heroine – Linda Mowbray, an illegitimate royal who is the leader of a criminal gang – is involved in a plot that also accommodates two historical figures who could never have met – the notorious thief Jack Sheppard (1702-1724), and the future George IV (1762-1830). To their readers, these impossibilities did not matter – not if the latest instalment kept up the supply of breathless thrills.”

This Sunday, SHOWTIME’s Penny Dreadful explores that “place in the shadows,” the “demi-monde,” “a half world between what we know and what we fear” and promises to stretch of boundaries of logic and reason in order to keep us entertained and returning week after week for our own penny’s worth of “more.”

In episode one we meet, Timothy Dalton as the legendary British explorer Sir Malcolm Murray who is the acknowledged leader of this group of otherworld urban adventurers. Eva Green is the mysterious Vanessa Ives whose relationship to Sir Murray is yet to be unveiled. She seems unquestionably loyal and even subservient to him. I kept wondering why, when she otherwise seemed so surefooted and independent. Seductively roped into assisting them on their first outing is Josh Hartnett as Ethan Chandler; an American sharpshooting braggart, womanizer and hard drinker.  Harry Treadaway is the nervous-acting, forward-thinking medical surgeon with a lot more going on than his youth would lead one to believe. Will this be the unified four to transport us through this dark and dank Victorian world week to week?

Timothy Dalton and Eva Green in "Penny Dreadful" on Showtime
Jonathan Hession/SHOWTIME Timothy Dalton and Eva Green in "Penny Dreadful"

Episode One—The Wrap Up: There’s so much right with the overall production of the show it’s near impossible to relay, without sounding like an award show.  So, just to spotlight a few: The four lead characters, given to us by the gifted creator John Logan (Skyfall, Hugo, The Aviator), are worth watching. I was left feeling curiosity about them. What could be better? The production design by Jonathan McKinstry is exceptionally of-the-time and, in fact, so severe in its bleakness, it elevates the sense of tension created by the bizarre goings-on. The director J. A. Bayona (The Impossible) gets the final nod for a tightly paced episode that made me jump more than once and, I’m not ashamed to say, view two of the scenes through the forest of my steepled fingers as I peeked through; afraid to watch, yet not looking away for fear of missing a second. Well-done.

Tune in this Sunday night to see what happens on SHOWTIME’s Penny Dreadful 11pm. Episode 1: “Night Work.”

This article is related to: Television, Timothy Dalton, Eva Green, Harry Treadaway, Josh Hartnett, John Logan, J.A. Bayona, Penny Dreadful, SHOWTIME