Hmmm. That title might have been a reach. (But the show really does reference Sweeney Todd, so . . . I'm leaving it.)
At any rate, I have been watching Penny Dreadful lately and I LOVE it. I think it's the best new fantasy series since Game of Thrones started. Better than Grimm, Dracula, OUAT, Witches of East End, and Wizards of Waverly Place. Just kidding, I haven't seen the last one. And, to be fair and open-minded as I dole out superlatives, I still haven't seen Orphan Black. (But is that fantasy, or science fiction, or something else entirely, she mused before snapping out of what was sure to become a trip down the literary-categorization rabbit hole).
The titles are lovely, evoking the Downton Abbey or the Black Sails titles--mostly shots of objects, like still lifes. However, these particular still lifes are covered in spiders and snakes, and the tone is a darker and more ominous. A teacup fills with blood and drops to the floor, shattering. Carrion beetles swarm. A torso, covered in stitches, rotates.
Eva Green, of James Bond fame, plays Vanessa Ives, an enigmatic woman with as-yet-to-be-explained occult powers. She is the friend? former lover? business partner? of Sir Malcolm Murray (played by Timothy Dalton, a former Bond), whose daughter Mina has been seduced by vampires. Yes, that Mina Murray. To find Mina, they team up with Ethan Chandler, played by Josh Hartnett (whose voice, I never noticed before, sounds almost exactly like Jon Hamm's), a sharpshooter visiting London to escape from as-yet-to-be-explained legal troubles in the US; and Victor Frankenstein--yes, that Victor Frankenstein--a young doctor who needs money to fund his experiments. Also, Eva Green has caught the eye of Dorian Gray. Yes, that Dorian Gray.
You'll notice several patterns emerging, most notably how the lives and backstories of literary characters of the Victorian gothic novel begin to intersect in really interesting ways. In essence, it's not unlike what the creators of Once Upon a Time are trying to do with fairy tales. But where OUAT is clumsy, heavy-handed, and without meaningful emotional highs and lows, so far, Penny Dreadful is clever, elegant, and even lyrical in some moments. Its intertextuality works; you can tell that the show-writers have thought a lot about the connections between these characters and what they might mean. The show even gestures toward literary characters outside its main corpus of inspiration. Shakespeare gets several nods, as per usual, but the most interesting one to me was The Phantom of the Opera. Frankenstein's monster--called Caliban and played by Rory Kinnear--takes a job at the Grand Guignol theater in London. As he skulks under the stage, mangled face half-hidden by a veil of Snape-like black hair, peering out at a beautiful actress, he looks just like Erik, the Phantom, obsessing over Christine.
The dialogue is a lot better than any of the shows (other than GoT, whose dialogue I adore) I mention above. It's witty without overreaching. It still sounds basically realistic for Victorian speech. And peppered in are beautiful, passionate speeches, like the speech Frankenstein gives Murray when he's talking about his ultimate goal, the preservation of human life and extinction of death. These performances are high points, almost as chilling (albeit in different ways) as the show's horror.
Which is, I must tell you, horrible. I don't like horror. I don't watch it, I don't read it, I look away when trailers for scary movies come on. Even Alfred Hitchcock is a bit too frightening for me at times. So I debated about watching Penny Dreadful. I decided to give it a try in full daylight so, if it was too scary, I'd still have some time before bed to work it out of my system. And it is pretty scary. But for some reason it doesn't go past my limit. I think it might be because I am familiar with these characters and their storylines, so the basic element of terror--surprise--is somewhat muted. It also might be that, so far, there hasn't been too much of what really freaks me out: hard-core supernatural stuff, hauntings and whatnot.
Although if you watch it, you'll probably wonder where I'm coming from. The second episode revolves around a seance that goes about as wrong as a seance can go. If that's not hard-core supernatural, then what is?, you rightly ask. All I know is, I liked that scene and found it immensely watchable. Maybe it's because the main character, Vanessa, is likeable despite her mysterious nature. Maybe it's because I'm caught by the central mystery--who is Egyptian god behind all of this? Or maybe it's because Eva Green did some baller acting and should maybe try out for Cirque du Soleil, she's so eerily flexible.
It all makes me wonder if I should start tentatively dipping my toe in the pool of horror (in moderation, and in daylight). After all, Thomas Middleton was interested in several aspects of horror--human evil, supernatural forces, lots of shocking gore. Several minutes of the fourth episode, "Demimonde," take place at the Grand Guignol, a name I know only because today's reviewers of Middleton's plays often liken them to the shocking, splashy plays that debuted at that theater in the Victorian period. If I appreciate Middleton and what he's consciously doing with those elements, perhaps I can develop an appreciation for modern horror.
I think I'll always prefer my horror in the guise of fairy tales, though.
*As a Middleton fan, a theater historian, and a lover of fantasy, it was a true and nerdy joy, a real intertextual moment for me, to watch Rory Kinnear, who starred as Vindice in Melly Still's The Revenger's Tragedy at the National Theater, play Frankenstein's monster-called-Caliban and run around the underbelly of the Grand Guignol, operating antiquated stage machinery and properties with unabashed glee.