The new horror series “Penny Dreadful” premieres tonight at 9PM Central on Showtime, but it’s been available for subscribers as an early preview for two weeks now. As if there isn’t enough great TV on Sunday nights already, along comes this sly and involving show to spook your schedule. It’s a must-see program, even against the likes of “Mad Men” and all the other compelling choices available.
Creator John Logan is one of show business’ brightest talents. He’s a Tony-award winning playwright (“Red”) and has written a number of huge Hollywood movies, everything from “Gladiator” to “The Aviator” to “Skyfall”. And he’s clearly a fan of monster movies too because a love and respect informs every scene of his new thrilling series’ premiere. He may be treading on some familiar ground, with the likes of Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, vampires and cowboys filling out his story, but he’s made it fresh and fun by focusing on character and twisting his story in unique ways.
Josh Harnett plays American gunslinger Ethan Chandler, slumming it in a Wild West show touring through England, who’s recruited by explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and the mysterious Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) to help them with a dangerous pursuit. They’re after Sir Malcolm’s kidnapped daughter who has been abducted by sinister forces, namely a Nosferatu.
On the eve of Evan’s hire, they encounter a number of the undead populating London’s underground. His shooting skills come in handy and they dispatch the brood, but the daughter is not found. Instead, they're left holding a vampire with Egyptian hieroglyphics etched into its endoskeleton, and this leads the three to call upon a doctor to perform a special autopsy. The surgeon they visit is doing all kinds of secret experiments with corpses, and is of course, named Frankenstein. But even in such tried and true terrain, Logan manages to inject his tale with new blood.
Frankenstein is played by an intensely focused Harry Treadaway, and rather than presenting the bad doctor as a psychotic narcissist which is often the case in Hollywood, Logan writes him as an sharp tongued and grounded doctor who cuts through Sir Malcolm’s Victorian bombast (Dalton, droll and delightful as always, even when playing a stuffed shirt).
And Logan, who's written all the episodes himself, is a master of wit and clever dialogue as evidenced by the historical riffs provided by UK veteran character actor Simon Russell Beale in a comic relief role. Still, Logan's best scene is one where silence dominate the proceedings. In the premiere's best moment, Frankenstein inadvertently sparks his creature (Rory Kinnear) to life and their wordless exchange is both frightening and poignant. It may very well bring a tear to your eye. It did mine.
It's scenes like that which tell you that “Penny Dreadful” is not going to be your typical slice of Victorian Gothic. Whether it was Guy Ritchie’s reinvention of “Sherlock Holmes” (http://imdb.to/1mdk9Op) or the BBC series “Ripper Street”, the era lends itself easily to bombast, but not here. “Penny Dreadful” has something subtler and more serious in its sights. It's exceedingly intelligent, and resists any winking at a knowing audience. In fact, there wasn't one tongue planted in a single cheek the entire first episode, even with Frankenstein’s dabbling with human tissue.
Logan also exhibits utter cool in parsing out the pieces to his story. He's taking his time, though nothing ever drags. Dorian Gray is a key figure in the series, but he didn’t even show up the first night. And while the band of vampire hunters may echo parts of “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, this expedition has much more emotional resonance. That graphic novel, and disastrous movie adaptation of it, were rather cold and cruel. Logan's series has more heart. It's ghoulish and frightening yes, but it's also remarkably moving, with characters you're going to be drawn to and care about.
Eva Green can do unblinking aggressiveness better than any actress going these days, but here she’s as vulnerable as any character she’s ever put onscreen. Watch as her body trembles during moments when she's praying for salvation for past sins, or when she's fighting her attraction to Evan. And as that stoic but uncertain cowpoke, Josh Hartnett does his best screen work to date. He often can be more than a little remote on film, as evidenced by his arm's length performance in Brian De Palma’s take on James Ellroy’s “The Black Dahlia” (http://bit.ly/1gaeUzb). Here however, he's totally engaged and exceedingly engaging.
Owen McPolin’s cinematography, Abel Korzeniowski’ score, and everything else from the set direction to the casting, are top shelf here. Showtime has clearly spared no expense in bringing this detailed and gorgeously macabre series to life. There will be only eight episodes this season, echoing the new trend on premium cable. HBO’s “Girls” and “True Detective” only served up that many too. Nonetheless, a lot happens in the first episode of "Penny Dreadful" and eight outings will clearly yield a lot.
Horror fans, and audiences that like shrewd stories with vivid characters, should all tune into “Penny Dreadful”. Like its name, the show creates a sense of taut and involving tension from its first second to its last in the premiere hour. I have a feeling it's going to be very addictive television, perhaps the network's new "Dexter". This series is killer. It gets its claws into you quick and gives viewers a lot of fun to sink their teeth into. (Or fangs, for that matter.)