Let's say this much for Showtime's new Gothic horror series, Penny Dreadful: It's nothing if not earnest.
Premiering as part of SXSW's new "Episodic" program yesterday afternoon, the first episode of Penny Dreadful sure looks and feels sophisticated. Introduced by star Josh Hartnett and director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible), Showtime's highly ambitious psycho-drama comes from the Skyfall team of writer John Logan and director Sam Mendes, both of whom executive-produce Penny Dreadful and bring an inherent prestige to the production. Their involvement, says Hartnett, was the primary reason why he wanted to headline the show, and one can imagine the same goes for his co-stars Timothy Dalton and Eva Green (who's currently wrecking shop in 300: Rise of an Empire). And while on the show's Dublin set, made up with immaculate detail and precision to resemble Victorian London circa 1891, they probably patted themselves on their backs for signing onto the project—Penny Dreadful thrives on Gothic mood, with its darkly lit, stone-laden alleys and hallways, vintage corsets, and decadent buildings illuminated with candles.
The pilot, screened to a full house of SXSW Film Festival attendees, is, on a superficial level, visually stunning, but as entertainment? It's as stiff as the corpses seen within it.
Naturally, the first episode is dedicated to world-building and exposition, laying out the pieces for what seems to be the new Monster Squad, or at least a grown-up and highbrow version of Scooby Doo. Dalton plays Sir Malcolm, a seasoned explorer with only one mission on his mind: finding the daughter he lost, years ago, to what he believes is a "demimonde," a netherworld connected to the ancient Book of the Dead and occupied by monsters, demons, and, as seen in the first hour, bald-headed and red-eyed vampires straight out of the 1979 made-for-TV movie Salem's Lot. Malcolm's righthand woman is Vanessa Ives (Green), a stone-faced recruiter of sorts. Under Malcolm's orders, she tracks down American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Hartnett) and Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), two guys whose individual skills, Malcolm believes, will help him mow through whatever ghouls he's about to face en route to saving his little girl.
On paper, Penny Dreadful is The Avengers for horror historians. Before its eight-episode first season (premiering on May 11) is over, Victor Frankenstein and the self-made, cadaver-assembled monster in his personal attic-level laboratory will have interacted with fellow genre literature touchstone Dorian Gray (played by Reeve Carney) and Mina Harker (Olivia Llewellyn), she of Bram Stoker's Dracula notoriety.
Except that, unlike The Avengers, Penny Dreadful is humorless. Now that horror is in vogue on television, there's one of two ways showrunners can take their series—either push envelopes and go artsy hardcore like NBC's Hannibal, or embrace camp and surround the macabre with sex, insanity, wink-winks, and self-aware ridiculousness like True Blood and American Horror Story. Penny Dreadful, one episode in, does neither of those approaches. The general conceit of Dr. Frankenstein teaming up with a Wyatt Earp type to battle monsters is unavoidably goofy, but Team Penny Dreadfuldon't show any signs of recognizing that. The pilot's sole action set-piece hints at that kind of heightened genre potential—Hartnett and Dalton get into a fist-fight and six-shooter brawl with three vampires in an underground bunker, and it's good fun, if not also a bit too shaky-cam erratic. Other than that, though, it's all deathly serious, which wouldn't be a problem if it were also alive.
Watching Josh Hartnett and Timothy Dalton eliminate a pack of fanged creatures, I found myself wishing that Bill Compton would burst into the room, call for "Sookie!" in that bootleg Elvis Presley voice of his, and enliven proceedings with a stronger pulse. That longing for True Blood's saccharine character was the only thing scary about Penny Dreadful. A bad sign, indeed.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
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