A supernatural thriller/melodrama set in 19th-century London, on Showtime, with Eva Green and Billie Piper (recently seen on Showtime in Secret Diary of a Call Girl). You’d be forgiven for thinking there would be a lot of sex and violence and sexy violence and violent sex … I’ve always thought True Blood was the most Showtime-like series HBO ever ran. You wouldn’t have been wrong in your expectations, exactly, but it turns out Penny Dreadful is a fairly classy attempt at a sex-and-violence melodrama, with some clever angles that promise an interesting future.
The word “classy” isn’t necessarily what you look for in a series that claims to be inspired by the cheap sensationalism of the actual penny dreadfuls. But it’s clear that Showtime intends to offer sensationalism that is anything but cheap. Timothy Dalton plays a leading role … he and Green make something of a time-travel James Bond reunion … Dalton gives us a perfectly submerged hamminess (if he offered straight ham, it would be too much). Literary allusions abound … there are too many spoilers out there, but you won’t get them here. Suffice to say that some of the characters seem to be based on well-known characters from literature, and some are the actual characters.
Plenty of effort has gone into making the world of Penny Dreadful seem “accurate”, rather in the way HBO did for Rome. Things aren’t always clean, class differences are clear, and despite the world of 19th century London seeming at least a little like the present day, we are always reminded that the ensuing 100+ years have seen a lot of change.
Dalton and Green are excellent, which is to be expected. Josh Hartnett? Well, I once wrote of one of his performances that “Josh Hartnett spends the entire movie with a look on his face that says ‘uh oh, that burrito I ate for lunch is about to make my ass explode, I better try to hold it in until this scene is over.’” He isn’t as bothersome here, which is probably good enough.
They’ve saved plenty of surprises for later episodes, and I imagine this will be popular enough to run for several seasons. (Not to mention, Showtime has a long history of keeping series around long past their sell-by date, so we could be seeing Penny Dreadful for quite some time.) For now, I’d put this in the B+/A- range.