Penny Dreadful is in a unique position. On the one hand, it’s chock full of great visuals, fun occult subject matter, and two Bond movie alums: Timothy Dalton and Eva Green. On the other hand, it asks questions and establishes mysteries before it introduces the characters or the rules of the world. You won’t know what the hell is happening for the first 20 minutes of the premiere episode. The series relies on the viewer's knowledge of a variety of subject matter, and patience. This might be where it gets its namesake. Penny Dreadfuls were British serial stories, purchased for a penny, that featured lurid and sensational stories occasionally Gothic in nature. It is definitely going for a pulpy and occult, but feels like a very pretentious version of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.
“Who the f**k are you people?”
The episode begins with a girl sneaking out of her bed opening a door and screaming her head off. Then we cut to an older woman (Green) who is frantically praying as spiders, presumably not radioactive, crawl from a crucifix to her arm. Then without warning we cut to Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) a.k.a. Wyatt Twerp, a charming sharpshooter in a Wild West Show... in England. Despite poor career choices, he (or Hartnett’s butt double) does well with the ladies. Without much of an introduction Green’s character tries to convince him to work with her, and we understand that she must be some sort of witch. After all, Green played similar characters in The Golden Compass, Dark Shadows, and Camelot. At this point, the show is getting precariously close to going up its own rear with pretension. Is it above exposition? Great visuals and creepy mysteries are great but even better if we know who the hell the characters are.
Despite all human logic, Wyatt Twerp meets Green’s character without knowing her name or what she wants at a seedy opium den. Enter Sir Malcolm (Dalton), he tells Ethan to join him in a creepy basement... and he does. Then he proceeds to talk to a bunch of men in a weird language, maybe Elvish or ancient Sumerian. Who knows? All we know is they are vampires because they have fangs. Then they attack and they kill them all. Ethan, is unfazed until they enter a room full of dead bodies and get attacked by a snake creature. They are able to fight him because Green’s character stares him down. They take the dead body to some weird lab where people are dissecting bodies. A doctor cuts open the creature they killed and it has hieroglyphs written all over its skin. Then after 20 minutes where the audience doesn’t know what the hell is going on, Wyatt Twerp who, up until know, has been entirely stoic, says, “Who the f**k are you people?” Their response: come to yet another undisclosed location.
Let the Magic Begin
Ethan shows up at the house and, surprise, he gets to learn Green’s character’s name, Vanessa Ives. She’s creepy and gives him an awkward card reading and then explains what’s going on. Sir Malcolm’s daughter is the girl who disappeared and they are looking for her. Sir Malcolm and Vanessa take the hieroglyphs to an eccentric Ancient Egyptian expert who looks like an extra in The Hunger Games. It turns out the writings are fromthe Egyptian book of the Dead.
Remember that doctor that cut open the creature. He’s an important character apparently and gets invited to Sir Malcolm’s home, The Explorer’s Club. He, like Wyatt Twerp, is getting drafted for some sort of secret undertaking. This is starting to become the origin story of a Victorian England version of The Avengers, only without the luxury of any exposition. Suddenly, Malcolm sees his daughter. Only she’s not a child, she’s a creepy monster teen. He and Vanessa have a strange connection. It’s unclear yet if she is responsible for his daughter’s condition, or if they’re trying to cure her. But who cares? Because...
That Doctor who is so vital to the team? The one whose name we never learn? That’s for a big ol' reveal. On his way home from dinner, on a rainy night, he decides to raise the dead. He pulls a tarp to reveal a corpse sewn together and then he reanimates it because he is none other than Dr. Viktor Frankenstein. His monster flashes his peen for a few minutes and they share a tender moment of new life.
It’s unclear where the show is going as the next episode is primed to introduce more characters. It seems engaging, has a pretty terrific cast, and some great production value. However, mystery for mystery’s sake can be sloppy storytelling. It seems like we won’t know for sure if this is a worthwhile watch until the next episode.