Based on the popularity of “penny dreadfuls”, 19th Century British stories famous for their lewd and violent content, Penny Dreadful interweaves several classic horror stories and sets them in 19th Century London. You have Dracula, Frankenstein and his monster, Dorian Gray, and (as of the 3rd Season) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all in one place. There are vampires, werewolves, witches, demons, and immortal beings. It may sound like the British version of True Blood, but it’s far more than that. And if you’re a James Bond fan (yay!), you may recognize more than a few names and faces.
Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) has been haunted by an evil entity her entire life, and now that she’s an adult, she’s finally started to push back against those dark forces. With her is her surrogate father, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), whose daughter Mina has been kidnapped by some kind of blood-sucking monster. They hire Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), an American cowboy actor who turns out to be a highly-skilled gun-for-hire. Rounding out the cast are Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), whose scarred and malformed “Creature” (Rory Kinnear) has turned against him; and Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), a rich, handsome, impossibly charming young man who has an unnatural secret.
Three seasons is short, but in today’s TV world of never-ending stories, it helps to have a short show once in a while. The downside with a short show is that some ideas will either be marginalized, or never realized at all. And when you have such a rich assortment of classic horror story characters, you want it to go to as many places as possible. You’ll get plenty of Frankenstein and his monster, but only a brief appearance of Van Helsing. Plenty of character growth for the core cast, but not so much for ageless characters like Dracula and Dorian Gray. But this show’s focus is primarily on the three main characters and the ups and downs they face with the relationships they form with one another.
Vanessa Ives is the heart and soul of this show. She goes through the biggest transformation of all the characters, struggling with love vs. safety, loyalty vs. sacrifice, fighting vs. submission, all because her own darkness won’t let her have a normal life. Ethan Chandler’s darkness is more superficial, but equally horrific. He’s running from his past, which is not nearly as terrifying as his present. How can a man find a place in this world when he inadvertently causes death every full moon? And Sir Malcolm is the glue the keeps them together, a man who’s explored every dark corner of the world, has lost everything he ever loved, but always has the strength to re-invent himself when his world gets shattered. And it’s compelling characters like these that are the reason “penny dreadfuls” became classics in the first place.
This show has a powerful first couple of seasons, and the third and final season quickly (maybe too quickly) wraps everything up. It’s well-written, very intense, and most of the horror elements are the stuff of nightmares. But with such a short run, you can’t help but wish even more could have been explored with such a vast mythology. It’s 27 episodes, so it’s easy to binge. And most of the performances are Emmy-worthy to say the least. While there are better shows out there, you may find yourself dreadfully attached to this one.
4 out of 5