Preview: Penny Dreadful 1×1 (Showtime/Sky Atlantic)

I wouldn't go that far

In the US: Sundays, 10pm ET/PT, Showtime. Starts May 11
In the UK: Will air on Sky Atlantic in May

Sometimes, it’s nice to have a fresh pair eyes come to a genre, free of its cliches, unwritten expectations and rules, and history, and throw everything up in the air to create something new and different. If that writer or director is also extremely talented, so much the better, since they can perhaps create a new ‘paradigm’ for that genre that will change it forever.

Look at literary history and you’ll see how neophytes have created some of horror’s greatest icons: consider, for example, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Oscar Wilde and Robert Louis Stevenson, 19th century authors who without any history of writing horror came fresh to it and created Dracula, Frankenstein, Dorian Gray and Dr Jekyll.

That, though, is the utopian vision. The flipside, of course, is that the new arrival, no matter how talented they are, simply won’t know what hoary old tropes they’re recycling and will add precisely nothing, no matter how well written it is.

So how much should you be looking forward to the self-consciously titled Penny Dreadful, a US-UK co-production between Showtime and Sky Atlantic, that’s written by no lesser a scribe than John Logan and exec produced by Sam Mendes? Neither has done much by way of horror but still have the likes of Skyfall, Gladiator, Coriolanus and American Beauty under their belts.

The series, as you might imagine all those of you who know what a penny dreadful was, is a Victorian horror show. It pulls together the acting talents of Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett, Eva Green, Billie Piper, Rory Kinnear, Helen McRory and Simon Russell Beale, to name but a few, and imagines a London where the works of Shelley, Wilde and co are all true and Dracula, Gray and other creatures of the night really do skulk in the dark. It’s up to Dalton, Green and Hartnett to rescue those in peril from the supernatural horrors that are mere legends.

Revolutionary or merely Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen again? If you’re in the US, you can watch and find out below; the rest of you can watch the trailer then follow me after the jump and I’ll let you know.

Some of literature’s most terrifying characters, including Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, and iconic figures from the novel Dracula are lurking in the darkest corners of Victorian London. PENNY DREADFUL is a frightening psychological thriller that weaves together these classic horror origin stories into a new adult drama.

Is it any good?
It’s all right. Not great, but all right.

The show obviously has a lot of things in its favour: its cast and crew, a decent budget, some nice (Irish) filming locations. Logan’s love of 19th century literature shines through, as does his love of toothsome dialogue. But you’re still going to get a feeling of deja vu in pretty much every scene, because you’ll likely as not have seen something similar, usually done better, somewhere before.

A lot of the first episode is about surprises, as you try to guess the source of each character. Who is Sir Malcolm really? Who is his daughter? Who is that mysterious pathologist, unfazed by the supernatural? 

Trouble is no matter how much Logan tries to conceal and dance around the obvious, you’ll probably spot who everyone is within minutes. The missing daughter who’s probably in Dracula’s clutches? Duh. The mysterious pathologist interested in electricity and the veil between life and death? Duh.

This makes Penny Dreadful something of a neverending series of build-ups without satisfying pay-offs, leaving only the original characters to have any intrigue. Is Ethan Chandler (Hartnett) supposed to be related to Raymond? What is Eva Green’s character’s mysterious secret? If they weren’t next to Doctor Victor Frankenstein and Mina Harker’s dad, those might be interesting questions; unfortunately, the sheer power of those icons outweighs anything a modern author can hope to conjure in just an hour.

The stellar cast and character list also works against the episode, since although we know that Rory Kinnear, Billie Piper and Dorian Gray, for example, are on their way, they’ve not yet shown up yet, meaning the first episode is more of an amuse bouche rather than a full course.  

Direction is also an issue. There are some good action scenes, but when it comes to horror? Seen the one where the camera pans away and then as it pans back, you spot something that wasn’t there before and the director ignores it? Yeah, me, too. Seen the one where… Yeah, me, too. Unfortunately, Sam Mendes was too busy to direct the show, leaving Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) to kick things off instead. The result is something of a greatest hits of horror cinema that’s too derivative to actually shock except through simple gore.

It’s essentially a show that wants to lump everything 19th century together, from real-world monsters like Jack the Ripper to the spookier Dracula, in the hope that all that combined horror will somehow create something great. But Logan loves his own cleverness too much – gosh, isn’t this impressive? I’ve put together all these characters and treated them seriously. Who’d ever have thought of that? Well, let’s of people, John… – without truly knowing how to shock or create anything shocking. 

Nevertheless, there’s a reasonable foundation there and future episodes may improve as these tasters develop into full blown main courses. But largely, you’ll have seen it all before and in comparison, modern horror, with the likes of Hannibal, seems far more capable of scaring than simple regurgitation of Victoriana.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.