Tuesday, September 2, 2014

What's Geekin' Me Now: Penny Dreadful

When I first got wind of Showtime's new series Penny Dreadful, I was vaguely intrigued, but mostly skeptical.  I suspect it was still some sort of lingering hangover from the incredibly painful League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, which should have been amazing, if it hadn't been determined to be so goddamned awful instead.  On seeing these new promos, I had a dual sense of both having seen this all drivel before, and also dreading how the "showbiz" would screw up the seemingly golden notion of a Victorian adventure mash-up this time around.  Since that half-hearted 2003 film debacle, the likelihood of ever seeing something approximating the pure joy of reading Alan Moore's brilliant and classic version of the League has seemed more and more improbable.

Ultimately though, I broke down and gave Penny Dreadful a fair try.  And once I started watching, I found it far exceeded my admittedly low expectations.  It's fair to say PD succeeds in nearly every way the LXG movie fails, and ultimately embodies the best approximation I've seen yet of the Savage Worlds / Cthulhu by Gaslight / World of Darkness / Space: 1889 crossover game I've wanted so desperately to play in or run myself someday.

The term grand guignol seems tailor-made to describe a very particular genre of Victorian horror, and the first season of PD more than lives up to this designation.  Through its eight blood-spattered episodes of suspense and intrigue, it consistently dances frighteningly close to the edge of my personal horror tolerance.  It's a subtle line in the sand, but one which, say,American Horror Story gleefully waltzed over a few too many times, resulting in my ultimately walking away entirely from that series, unfinished.  While hard to stomach in certain moments though, PD never quite crosses that line for me, and so  I was still able to appreciate the greater story elements for what they were.  The cinematography and pacing both seemed to complement that brooding, misty aura of dread quite well.

The Victorian mash-up motif which seemed so natural in Moore's writing was fairly butchered in the movie version of LXG.  (Tom Sawyer, wtf?)  The danger inherent in a writer shoe-horning in every famous personage he or she can think of in a project like this is fraught with danger.  In the right hands, it can be a joy to an astute reader to pick apart.  In the wrong ones, it can be like all the worst episodes of Superfriends piled atop each other at once.  ("Eh-neeek-chock!")  PD succeeds where many other would fail though, and each character addition that rings a bell does not seem gratuitously out of place.  As well, I have to admit to always having had a weakness for vampire stories.  And while that trope may be overplayed in television and movies as a whole, PD brings to it a mix of the subtle menace inherent in a Victorian horror along the lines of Dracula, but also combined with the savage terror omnipresent in Salem's Lot, one of my favorite books of all time.  To use a trite and painful pun, PD - at least in its first season - has succeeded in putting together an old-school vampire epic with teeth.

The cast is well chosen, for the most part.  I have never been a big fan of Eva Green, honestly, but as Miss Ives here, her particular brand of creepy allure (which is to say, French) is put to perfect use, and - hate to say it though I do - between PD and the last Sin City film, I find her growing on me immensely.  I'm encouraged to go rent 300: Rise of an Empire now as soon as I can manage it.  Josh Hartnett does a great job in his role as the American gunslinger, Ethan Chandler.  While he does add a needed relatability and/or earthiness to the series, his presence never seems out of place or gratuitously colonial for the sake of contrast alone.  In my opinion, though, Timothy Dalton is the true jewel of this cast.  As Sir Malcom Murray, it is a joy to see him finally inhabiting a role full of the morally-ambiguous gravitas I feel like I've always known he was capable of, but am hard pressed to think of an actual example of from his past career.  The only real weak link in the cast, really, is Billie Piper's atrociously accented hooker-with-a-heart-of-TB Brona Croft.  I have heard and produced some horrible Irish accents in my years, but her brogue is like a Belfast version of an Irish Spring commercial.  Which is, trust me, every bit as horrible as it sounds, making it sadly impossible to properly judge anything else in her performance.  I have a feeling her career will do just fine in any event.

Beyond these, the remainder of the supporting cast does an admirable job of bringing the creepy and bringing the dread.  (David Warner's all too brief appearance as Dr. Van Helsing is especially welcome, as I've been a huge fan of seeing him turn up in things ever since Time Bandits.)  In eight short hours, I have been won over and gone from cautious ambivalence to eagerly anticipating a repeat viewing.  I can't wait to see what the creators come back with in Season Two.  

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