My goth friends have been raving (in a good way!) about this series, but I didn’t have Showtime or Amazon Prime until recently — just in time for season two’s premiere on May 3, 2015. Penny Dreadful mashes up classic Victorian horror stories into one operatic, gothic, mystery tale beginning in 1891 London.
The main character is Vanessa Ives, whose childhood best friend was Mina Murray Harker, from Dracula. Mina’s father, Sir Malcom (played by Timothy Dalton), has teamed up with Vanessa to rescue a kidnapped Mina in season one of the show. They’re aided in this mission by Dr. Victor Frankenstein (yes, he’s created a monster … or two) and an American gunslinger Ethan Chandler — who’s shagging an Irish whore dying of consumption, Brona Croft. Most of the characters sometimes hang out with Dorian Gray (yes, of picture fame), either for brooding or shagging, sometimes both. Minor characters include Dr. Van Helsing (again, from Dracula) and a spiritualist Madame Kali / Evelyn Poole (played by the always awesome Helen McCrory). That’s just season one.
Each episode has a fair amount of blood, gore, and sex, but it’s on par with Game of Thrones, maybe a smidge more gore instead of sex compared with Westros. Penny Dreadful has consistently dark themes, of course, but the show also features pathos and tenderness at times and occasional gallows humor. If you’re not usually into the horror genre, this may still be of interest because it’s such an elegant, smart, and well-acted and scripted series. If you enjoy the gothic aesthetic, this show will push all the right buttons and make you squee with delight! Especially because it doesn’t just hit the gothic-horror clichés, Penny Dreadful does it in a gorgeous late Victorian fashion.
While the look of the show is stunning, and I’ll get to details about that in a minute, the show isn’t perfect. For one thing, Dorian Grey really seems like an afterthought — his character isn’t well integrated into the story, and he’s used a lot of the time as soft-porn eye candy. Not that I have a problem with this as a visual — he’s hot! it’s sexy! — but as an editor, I feel like there’s two shows going on. Here’s Penny Dreadful, the horror-mystery show, and here’s The Dorian Grey Porn Chronicles. I’d watch both, but for different reasons, if you know what I mean.
Another critique: Brona Croft, as played by Billie Piper (of Doctor Who fame), whoa, that’s one hell of an “Irish” accent. Not saying I could do better, but then, that’s not what I get paid for. Don’t worry though, it doesn’t look like she’ll do much talking in season two (spoiler alert!).
Penny Dreadful Costumes
If you’re wondering why the costumes in Penny Dreadful look so amazing, that’s because the producers didn’t screw around — they chose Gabriella Pescucci as the costume designer. She won a Best Costume Academy Award for The Age of Innocence (1994) and also designed The Borgias (2011-2013) for Showtime.
Horror movies and TV series don’t have a strong reputation for historical accuracy in costume — usually it’s just ‘throw some black dresses around’ or ‘rent generic Victorian costumes and splash them with blood’ — but this show might change that. The wardrobe for Vanessa (played by Eva Green) is particularly gorgeous, with many elaborate 1890s gowns covered in lace and beading and using rich materials. Her hair is also fantastic in a big, sweeping, period updo but a tiny bit messy to help convey her wild side. Brona is in slightly raggedy mismatched clothes but never cliche Victorian tart garb. The men are all in very proper suits, Sir Malcom is crisp yet dark, Ethan is dun-colored with touches of past wealth, Victor’s clothes show that bit of absent-minded professor.
Only Dorian looks off for the period. His haircut is very modern, and he usually wears his shirt collar open, 1970s-style. He even has big, chunky silver jewelry — yo, Dorian, be mad pimpin’! When everyone else looks perfectly proper and 1890s (with a gothic flair), Dorian just looks weird. I guess the filmmakers are trying to show that Dorian is ageless and doesn’t fit into this era, but the costumes make him look like he stepped out of Entourage. Like I said, he’s cute and shag-able, but that doesn’t mean he fits in here.
Background and recurring characters, however, do fit in and fill out the scenes beautifully. From exotic-yet-scary Madame Kali to flashbacks of Mina and Vanessa’s seemingly innocent youth to the grimy London street scenes, the costume and art direction details create a gothic Victorian wet dream. I don’t know how much Showtime is spending per episode, but the whole package looks rich and they’re getting their money’s worth in atmosphere.
Do you like gothic horror shows? Have you watched Penny Dreadful?