‘Penny Dreadful’ Isn’t Very Scary, But It Is Pretty Fun

Last night, Showtime rolled out a new, lavish supernatural thriller, Penny Dreadful. On paper, it reads like a knock-off of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen… but on screen it’s something far different and a lot more promising.

John Logan’s story is set in 1800s London, and centers around a cast of Victorian misfits. There’s Malcolm Murray, explorer and adventurer, not to mention father of one Mina Murray; Vanessa Ives, a psychic with vaguely defined powers and some sort of Satanic ties she’s desperate to be rid of; Ethan Chandler, a Wild West showman who’s probably a werewolf; and Victor Frankenstein, who the show spends a ridiculously long time trying to string us along pretending he’s someone else.

The pilot has flaws: The big reveal in the final scene is, uh, Frankenstein’s name, and anybody who’s seen a horror movie has that pegged from his amusingly morbid introduction. Similarly, the mysteries are either too specific or too vague; either Hartnett is a werewolf or he’s hunting one, for example. But there’s still quite a lot to recommend this show.

John Logan’s script actually feels a lot like an updated Victorian adventure novel, for better and for worse. There are points where it’s overwritten; at least three times the characters repeat a question back at each other. But it’s hard not to get into the swing of things, especially when the show gets gory or physical, which it’s willing to do quite often.

Speaking of which, Bayona isn’t holding anything back, but he’s not using anything just to have it, either. The “mature content” of cable isn’t thick and fast, but that makes it far more effective when, say, Timothy Dalton decides to jam a meathook through a vampire’s face. Although admittedly the show has a somewhat odd fascination with Rory Kinnear’s crotch; you’ll see a lot of it.

Helping considerably is the cast. Dalton, Eva Green, and Josh Hartnett all stand out. Green pulls off the spooky, otherworldly vibe the show needs, Dalton can deliver even the silliest lines with gravitas, and Hartnett underplays his role well. You buy him as both an action hero and a guy with a dark past.

It’s not going to challenge Hannibal for its crown as Best Horror Series on TV anytime soon, but Penny Dreadful is a fairly rousing little adventure in its own right. Check out the pilot right here and see if you agree.