“Penny Dreadful” is certainly visually transporting. The new Victorian Gothic drama on Showtime is a triumph of production design, from the elegantly wallpapered and laddered library of a wealthy lord to the overcrowded, grubby streets of London, where newspaper hawkers herald the return of Jack the Ripper. The ladies’ richly colored dress fabrics glow purple and turquoise against the cool gray cobblestones, off of which you’ll find a dim, stench-filled opium den with a slaughterhouse in the basement.
The show, which premieres Sunday at 10, is a reminder of just how gorgeously cinematic cable TV has become. Seriously, with the likes of “Mad Men,” “Fargo,” “True Blood,” and “Game of Thrones,” TV is throwing down some indelible and resonant imagery.
But here’s the really good news: “Penny Dreadful” is also a transporting narrative trip, for those with a taste for creepy horror tales. It’s a dark fantasia of old-school supernatural brand names such as Dr. Frankenstein and Dorian Gray attached to the new story of a famous explorer, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), who’s searching for his missing daughter. Created by writer John Logan, the show is the bloody nightmare version of ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” which also tries to combine public domain stories into something original. They’re not just sequels or reboots; at their best, they’re reinventions.
Put another way, they’re Frankenstein creatures — a collection of old parts sewn together and reanimated.
The title “Penny Dreadful” comes from lurid, pulpy serial fiction published in 19th-century England for a penny per booklet. Those penny dreadfuls were aimed at boys; this one takes boy-centric movie-matinee monsters and adds in adult melodrama, sex, stylized camp, and the odd philosophical comment. It also adds in Eva Green as Vanessa Ives, Sir Malcolm’s enigmatic cohort, who reads Tarot cards, conducts séances, and prays herself into altered states. With her unnervingly still demeanor and hypnotic eyes, Green delivers a wonderfully audacious performance. She lifts the whole endeavor to another level of cheekiness.
In the first two episodes, Vanessa helps Sir Malcolm bring together a dream team to help in their search, seducing them with her wit and, it must be said, her dilated pupils. Among the chosen: Dr. Frankenstein, a humorless young scientist with a massive chin dimple, played compellingly by Harry Treadaway. Frankenstein doesn’t fool around, saying that most scientific endeavors are solipsistic self-aggrandizement: “There is only one worthy goal for scientific exploration; piercing the tissue that separates life from death.” When he hears a rustling in his secret laboratory after a thunderbolt on a rainy night, he realizes that he may actually have risen to his own standard. Tissue: pierced.
Vanessa and Sir Malcolm recruit a down-and-out carnival cowboy named Ethan Chandler, played by Josh Hartnett. He’s a sharpshooter and a womanizer who appears to be on the run from an ugly past. He joins his new bosses on a trip into a vampire’s den, where they think Sir Malcolm’s daughter may be. It’s a gruesome scene ridden with viscous fluids and sharp teeth — there’s nothing romantic or sexy about these bloodsuckers — which brings out the gung-ho American in him. So far, that’s all he is — an American; let’s see if Hartnett and the writers can make him more faceted through his new friendship with an ailing prostitute, played with a touch of droll humor by Billie Piper.
Lest I go too far in my praise, let me say that “Penny Dreadful” isn’t a new addition to the league of most extraordinary series crowding TV right now. For fans of expertly hammy acting and heated-up supernatural doings, it’s a lot of fun. But if Logan wants to elevate “Penny Dreadful” from an entertaining and overdone lark to something richer and more thematic, he will need to keep changing things up. He will need to maneuver his already known characters away from their familiar story lines and into new and provocative material.
With a bit of clever revisionism and an infusion of our current anxieties into these dated tropes, the show could become something a bit more interesting and dread-filled.