There's nothing like a show confident in what it's doing. Of the dozens of pilots I watch a year, an overwhelming majority of them feel the need to explain themselves, over and over again: who their characters are, what matters to them, why the exist - and most annoyingly, why this particular story is the most epic, most original, best thing we've ever seen: in a world full of short attention spans, supremely critical audiences, and short-lived bombs with anemic audience draw, most pilots have to convince us that we need to be watching their show.
Penny Dreadful Season 1, Episode 1 “Night Work”
Written by John Logan
Directed by J.A. Bayona
Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on Showtime
There’s nothing like a show confident in what it’s doing. Of the dozens of pilots I watch a year, an overwhelming majority of them feel the need to explain themselves, over and over again: who their characters are, what matters to them, why they exist – and most annoyingly, why this particular story is the most epic, most original, best thing we’ve ever seen: in a world full of short attention spans, supremely critical audiences, and short-lived bombs with anemic audience draw, most pilots have to convince us that we need to be watching their show.
By comparison, Penny Dreadful‘s pilot, “Night Work”, seems like it could care less about explicitly defining itself. Under the pen of John Logan (the screenwriter for The Aviator, Skyfall, Sweeney Todd, Hugo, Gladiator, and others), “Night Work” takes borrowed characters (like Frankenstein and Mina Harker) and re-appropriates them to exist in the world that created them: post-Victorian (and post-Ripper) London, creating a wonderfully old-school period drama, buried in archetypal characters, situations, and stories associated with the characters and time period. And yet despite all of its cobbled-together pieces, Penny Dreadful feels fresh, a show so confident in its blood-drenched silliness, it embraces the many cliches of its various genres and narratives, allowing them to form something organic, yet infinitely familiar. In a world full of comic book adaptations, blockbusters that are all the same, and countless remakes and “reimaginings”, being able to capture that feeling in a bottle is an impressive feat.
It does so by using the familiar pilot narrative of “getting the team together” to slowly peel away the onion of its narrative, and the people inhabiting its world. When aristocrat Malcolm Murray’s (Timothy Dalton) daughter disappears under (assumed) supernatural circumstances, he begins to assemble a crew of people unafraid of blood, death, or the space between it and life – at its heart, Penny Dreadful is a supernatural story that makes us human: Josh Hartnett plays a drifting showman named Ethan with a shady past and daddy issues (seen when he opens his watch piece, inscribed with the words “A gift from your father”), and Eva Green plays a cursed woman attuned to the beings that live in the shadows. Like most shows, Penny Dreadful is about a group of (very, VERY white) people whose emotional baggage brings them together in search of greater truth: only on this show, the truth lies in the space between life and death, a search that begins with a dead body, complete with exoskeleton, razor-sharp teeth, and hieroglyphs inscribed on the “skin” underneath said exoskeleton.
Of course, the best embodiment of this in turn-of-the-century English literature is one Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), a “poetic man” (in the words of Malcolm), whose latest creation (played by Alex Price) comes to life in the final moments of the pilot. That final sequence is all of Dreadful‘s potential on display: the two men – one alive, one long presumed dead – share a moment akin to two intimate lovers, staring in each others eyes and crying at the beauty of what they’ve created (or for the man who rose off his electricity-fueled resting place, the man who created him), an evolutionary moment (or is it?) for mankind – and for the show, ending its hour-long ride from vampire hideouts to English gentlemen’s clubs on a very, very high note.
Every now and then, a show sneaks in that isn’t trying to reinvent anything familiar, just enhance it with a dash of personality: and the ending of Penny Dreadful‘s pilot suggests that, a horror show that’s not afraid to stop the bloodshed for a moment to consider the weight of human (and non-human) emotion, giving a beating heart in a genre normally reserved for cold, dead ones (or just ones ripped from the chests of other creatures). The next seven episodes (which I’ll be writing about each week) might not be able to continue this – but while it lasts during “Night Work”, it’s a fun, surprisingly subtle take on stories we’ve heard many, many times before.