I watched the first season of the Showtime series Penny Dreadful. Vampires, Victorians, the beginnings of popular literature, Timothy Dalton and Billie Piper were all ingredients I couldn’t resist. I did find the show entertaining, but I also found it less an homage to penny dreadfuls and more an updated version of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially since the movie version of League never really lived up to the comic books’ promise.
Penny Dreadful the series tells the story of Sir Malcolm Murray, hardened African explorer and father of Mina Murray, famous for marrying one Jonathan Harker and coming to the attentions of Count Dracula. Sir Malcolm wants to rescue his daughter from the clutches of the vampires and seeks help from a young Dr. Frankenstein, an American adventurer named Ethan Chandler, and Vanessa Ives, a one-time friend of Mina’s who is also a force to be reckoned with. Skirting the periphery of this group is none other than Dorian Gray, the famous portrait subject. For those familiar with the subject matter, this group almost is the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen! All we’re missing are Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, and Dr. Jekyll, but they’d certainly feel at home in this story. In fact, checking the IMDB page, it looks as though Dr. Jekyll does eventually make an appearance in the series.
Admittedly, the only actual penny dreadful I’ve read is Varney the Vampire—and I’m not all the way through. Also, thanks to Stephen Sondheim, I’m familiar with the story of Sweeney Todd, the barber who supplied fresh meat for pies in Victorian London. Based on what I know, Penny Dreadful the series doesn’t really resemble the classic penny dreadfuls. To be honest, Varney the Vampire has more in common with soap operas than it does with most modern horror. It endeavored to stretch situations on as long as possible, providing more scandals than actual sex and in many cases, more pratfalls than violence.
As period horror, I found Penny Dreadful entertaining and generally well told. Like many contemporary cable series, it does have the unfortunate tendency to be heavy-handed with the gratuitous sex and violence. Just to be clear, I call it gratuitous when the sex and violence happen and I don’t quite believe it would happen that fast or don’t really understand why it’s happening between those people. Aside from that issue, I thought it was interesting and fun to see those classic characters meet up.
Of course, the delicious irony here is that many of the characters here are from classic literature. Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Picture of Dorian Gray are all represented. I suppose the title Penny Dreadful sounded better than the title Classic Literature. Even so, the producers do give us a good look at everything from the theaters to shipyards in Victorian London. They show us both how the wealthy and the poor lived. I’ve enjoyed Penny Dreadful because it’s been honest that there were a lot of scary things about Victorian London besides vampires, werewolves, and other monsters that lurk only in the nightmares of authors.