Saturday, April 25, 2015

Penny Dreadful

Yesterday, I got my hands on the first season of “Penny Dreadful.” Today, I started watching the episodes and simply couldn’t stop until I had seen all eight of them. They were even better, because they didn’t feel or look like your average ‘turn of the century’ series done at the moment. There’s series like “Ripper Street” which are great on their own, but especially that one never really caught me. “Penny Dreadful” does a lot of things in a different way and that is what makes it so great.

Years ago, when “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” came out (the movie which put Sean Connery off acting), there was a good base to it, but the realisation was bad. The comic series it’s based on, also called “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and done by Alan Moore, is a very good, very tight, and very well structured series. It introduces characters well. It gives the characters a good background and a believable set of traits. It makes the story run well and it takes its time. Which is precisely where the movie failed - badly. Fact is, if you want to bring together a group of characters from several novels (or other backgrounds), you need time to bring them all together. You can’t do a total of three or so minutes for every character as they do in the movie. But you can do a total of almost one episode per character in a series, which is what “Penny Dreadful” does.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a lot of horror stories were written and published, usually in the form of a penny dreadful, a weekly or monthly magazine filled with stories, cheap, printed like a newspaper, available for everyone. They in turn inspired authors to write more of that type, to take those scares to the ‘better’ market. “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” and “The Mysterious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” bring together the three most important pieces of what Stephen King called the ‘Tarot’ of horror in his book “Danse Macabre.” The vampire, the creature, and the werewolf (because that is, deep down, what the story of Dr. Jekyll and his other self comes down to). Even though the series holds back on the werewolf for a long time, it brings together all three of the archetypes, including the demonic as well.
Then there’s the topic of life, of elongating life. It shows, of course, with Dr. Frankenstein, but also with the vampires (ever-lasting existence), with Dorian Grey (and his deal with the devil to stay young), and with Brona (who is on the verge of death and doesn’t want to die).
“Penny Dreadful” takes it slow with all those topics. It paces itself very well. We are introduced to the characters, to their stories, to their backgrounds. We are introduced to Victorian London (filmed in Dublin), to Victorian society with all its facets (including the dirties sides). We are pushed bit by bit into things, learning slowly what is going on actually.
The ending(s) of the story is(are) surprising enough, proving the old proverb of being careful of what you wish for (to Lord Malcolm). Things get turned upside down in the end, cards get shuffled, fates get dealt anew for most characters. The series leaves us hanging with very important questions: does Isabella desire to be normal, to be rid of everything dark about her? And if she does not, will she become what fate has chosen her to be? But there are similar questions attached to the other characters. What will become of Victor and his first ‘son?’ What will become of Ethan, now that he has shown his dark side in England? What will the master do, now that his bargaining chip is gone? (One question which bothered me during most of the series is where the hell the vampire masters get those masses of slaves from. Another was why all of those develop white hair, especially why all of the woman grow long, flowing, pure-white locks.)

I really enjoyed watching the first season of “Penny Dreadful” and I’m now looking forward to season two which has already been confirmed. I will also watch the episodes again at my leisure. The series is a rare gem and deserves to be treasured.

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