TV Report Card | 'Penny Dreadful' Season 1 Review

Overview: Gloomy, slow and heavy on atmosphere, “Penny Dreadful” swarmed with an air of gothic foreboding and visual dread. In a sort of adult twist on “The League of Extraordinary Gentleman”, famous characters from horror lit (Dorian Gray, Dr. Frankenstein) tangle with new incarnations (Vanessa Ives, Ethan Chandler) along with some retooled versions of Alan Quartermaine (Sir Malcolm Murray) and Frankenstein (The Creature). As the season wore on they teamed up to save Sir Malcom’s daughter from the clutches of a demonic creature.

Storyline Direction Pros: Mysterious gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and wild-eyed Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) gave “Penny Dreadful” most of its cents worth. The intrigue surrounding what ailed them, served up most of the premiere season’s best material. A theme heavily present throughout the series is the impact of guilt and as a character study on its effects, it is fascinating.

The four core characters all felt guilty over something and it was at the core of their “possession”. Vanessa’s guilt over her ravenous sensuality, Ethan’s over his violent past, Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) for his absentee parenting and Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) for his allocation of life. 

It’s worth noting that characters free from guilt are Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and The Creature (Rory Kinnear). Gray feels no compulsion to apologize for receiving pleasure by whatever means necessary. He does not whine about others lack of regard for him either. It’s a characteristic that makes him far more disarming. The Creature however, blames everyone and anyone else for his problems. He’s entitled and owed something from the world, an indictment of the infantile behavior that consumes an adolescent. Neither of these characters can be controlled, both for different reasons.

Overall, the series’ slow build brought a lot of anticipation and implored its audience to be active in the story by encouraging a speculative mindset whilst watching.  There was nothing particularly spoon fed here. It’s fair to say it could have answered certain questions sooner and the second season can only benefit from already having that groundwork set.

Storyline Direction Cons: The pacing was the freshman season’s biggest barrier to becoming must-see TV. Long pauses, soft whispers and a tendency to have the camera linger on one grisly sight after another, furthered the damage. Its haphazard approach to romance (Ethan and Brona) withdrew a lot of heart from the series. It is a horror program so expectations are low in that regard, though if it is going to be an element it needs to be handled with a little more gusto.

Finding the groove or definitive voice of its characters was another struggle. In one episode Dr. Frankenstein is ringing his hands over what do about The Creature and the next he’s acting rather disaffected by the whole thing. Why a man would be motivated to procure life when he lives it with such a melancholic disdain was difficult to reconcile. 

The Creature was about as unsympathetic as they come. In a riff off “Phantom of the Opera” he worked at a theater, where his heart was crushed by an unrequited love. Angered over the suffering his new lease on life has brought him and the fact it was forced upon him by Dr. Frankenstein, he spends the last bit of the season, demanding a female partner be brought into existence to suffer alongside him.

What about that is anything but selfish? Still the music swirled mournfully as if trying to make his plight ring all the more fervent. The painfully obvious identity of his chosen bride was another moment that lacked any tension.

Best Episode: “Closer Than Sister”

Production Caliber: Victorian, cold and dreary; everything a show such as this should boast.

Performance Quality: Eva Green always carries herself with a powerful feminine edge that exudes core strength and an indelible mystique. Her portrayal of the enigmatic Vanessa Ives was no exception as she utilized her hypnotic glint to the hilt and to astounding results.

She’s an actor who pushes her cast mates to be the best they can be and “Penny Dreadful” proved to be a perfect example of that formidable asset when it came to Josh Hartnett, who delivered his best work amidst her presence. Timothy Dalton’s welcomed return to the screen offered everything one would expect from the veteran.

Musical Score: Haunting and eerie with enough restraint to not overwhelm.

Overall Grade: B-, another spellbinding turn by Eva Green and a career resurgent performance from Josh Hartnett, boosted the show through the darkness. Not to mention the impeccably regal presence of Timothy Dalton. When the show was “on” it was strong and when it was “off” it was the opposite. Finding the balance between its big swings will be crucial in its follow-up season. “Penny Dreadful” has the benefit of amassing a marvelous cast. Hopefully future scripts give them the chance to show them off.