(*** This review is ever-so spoilerific, so read at your own risk ***)
It’s always been a source of consternation for me when multitudes of people ask if I’ve seen whatever seemingly massive TV phenomenon has governed my social media feeds with humourously-evasive, spoiler-free, sentence-long reviews and I’ll admit with a somewhat tragic shrug that no, I haven’t. Game Of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Orange Is The New Black, RuPaul’s [Never-Ending] Drag Race… all of these shows and many more have passed me by; with the odd exception, it’s really down to the fact that I don’t watch as much TV as I used to, especially stuff that threatens to take over my life. This year, I’ve taken some pains to expand my repertoire beyond Syfy‘s Face Off (which surely must be running out of potential contestants now, given how niche a casting-call that still-great show has) and Showtime‘s Homeland (whose last season, even I’ll admit, was a frustrating mess); I’m all brushed-up on Parks And Recreation and Community despite their increasing tardiness to the UK’s programming schedules and I’m very much looking forward to the respective second seasons of Canal+’s Les Revenants and Channel 4′s Utopia. However, the first brand-spanking new television event that has taken precedence over all else this year is one that couldn’t have been more tailored for my own particular tastes; Showtime and Sky‘s über-opulent, gory-as-hell, monster-mash-up mini-series, Penny Dreadful, a love-letter to literary/theatrical/cinematic horror that is slyly self-reflexive, mordantly funny and gorgeously well-made.
Dreadful‘s extravagance in terms of its exquisite production design and rampant blood-letting can likely be attributed to two key instigators in its making; creator/writer John Logan and executive producer Sam Mendes, Hollywood heavyweights who had just previously dusted their shoulders off after bringing the most successful James Bond film ever to fruition with Skyfall. Armed with plenty of clout and ambition, it took a deal between two of the more prolific cable channels from either side of the Atlantic to bring this Gothic trifle to life, the eight-episode story charting the investigation of a young woman’s abduction by supernatural forces in fin-de-siècle Victorian London, as conducted by a rag-tag group of paranormal investigators. You can imagine the pitch; the camp nastiness and unruly violence of American Horror Story mixed with the procedural intrigue and high-stakes intensity of Hannibal set amidst a backdrop of period Englishness suggesting Downton Abbey as adapted by Hammer Horror. As if that wasn’t a unique enough gumbo of on-trend mishmash, most of the principal characters happen to be taken from key tomes of Gothic literature too, with Dr. Frankenstein himself opening up cadavers and analyzing blood samples and Dorian Gray swanning around listlessly seducing anyone who arrives in his line of vision.
Made with an affectionate nod towards the high-concept mash-up titles made by Universal Studios in the 1940s and shot through with a modern adherence to shocking violence, sexuality and coarse language typical of its cable TV-based peers, Dreadful is broad horror entertainment that (mostly) doesn’t skimp on anything in terms of design and execution. The set design and decoration in particular is stellar throughout, from the dank underground opium dens that give way to vampire nests to the high society ballrooms that play host to seances and orgies for the well-to-do, all shot through with a sense of Gothic realism befitting the era whilst steering clear of going cartoonishly steampunk as other like-minded offerings have done recently. Needless to say, the costumes and practical makeup effects follow suit, particularly the latter in its offering up not just all kinds of nasty moments of torn flesh and claret being sprayed everywhere but also in key principal character designs that can inspire as much sympathy as they can terror, the best example being Frankenstein’s creation(s). All departments are also aided substantially by expert use of CGI, which is mostly used to broaden London’s ports and lamp-lit streets into cinematic vistas but also to help animate unsettling swarms of spiders, as well as at least one nasty instance of a character being ripped apart before your very eyes.
Which isn’t to say that all Dreadful can be enjoyed for is as 2014 TV’s finest showreel of resplendent flash-bang-squish; ironically enough, its use of state-of-the-art techniques not only mirrors the pyrotechnics and geysers of stage blood that punctuate the plays held at the Grand Guignol but also subtly plays into one of the show’s core themes of technological advancement being deployed by its characters to gain personal victories or spiritual enlightenment that more often than not ends up destroying them or those closest to them. The most significant example of this is Harry Treadaway‘s Frankenstein being confronted by his monstrous “child of modernity”, a creature that was primarily borne from romantic ideals in order to bridge the gap between life and death (one of the show’s most playful touches is his quoting Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s poetry throughout the series). We also have Billie Piper‘s Brona castigating the industrialization of the factories for sending her on to the streets with a nasty bout of tuberculosis and Eva Green‘s Vanessa being sent to a leading asylum that ultimately fails to try and mend her “mental disorder”, only to have the very evil that she tried to suppress snap her back into torrid life.
Which brings me to the main reason why Dreadful demands your attention: Eva Green. Having worked on her intense glower in the likes of Casino Royale and Starz‘s short-lived Camelot TV series, Green’s work as clairvoyant Vanessa Ives in Dreadful is positively star-making. Weighed down with terrible guilt over the disappearance of her beloved friend but unquestionably formidable with regards to how she applies her intelligence and sensuality in her quest to find her, Ives gives Green the chance to run the gamut of everything an actress can be offered physically and emotionally, showcased extravagantly in the best possession scenes since The Exorcist. Of note also is Timothy Dalton, his character Sir Malcolm’s single-mindedness affording the actor to convey cutthroat ambition and macho heroics amidst a strikingly dark, at times ruthlessly emotional journey; it ought to be said that Green’s finest moments in her already-lauded possession scenes are when the devilish discourse is being directed at Dalton, his reaction to his “son’s” death rattle being especially powerful. Special mention must also go to the roster of established guest stars, some of whom manage to create fabulous characters in but a handful of scenes, stars among them being Alun Armstrong‘s splendiferously vocal theatrical and the mighty David Warner‘s Van Helsing (who has a marvelous line about dispatching his wife that only an actor that iconic can pull off). The rest of the principal cast, however, have a harder time eliciting as much excitement from their own storylines, which is not entirely their fault but nevertheless where my misgivings for Dreadful start to creep in.
For all of the clever touches that Logan has thrown into Dreadful‘s story, it does have a difficult time trying to balance all of its ensemble elements against Vanessa and Sir Malcolm’s shared trauma into anything nearly as engrossing. Treadaway’s arc that turns his beleaguered doctor from a cold man of science into someone able to feel empathy for his adopted comrades and even his own murderous progeny just about scrapes through on the strength of his appealingly smart-arse performance, even if by the end Rory Kinnear‘s monster’s continued skulking in every dark London corner after him becomes a little farcical (it didn’t help that Caliban himself remained pretty unsympathetic despite Kinnear’s best efforts, but then gruesomely murdering two of the nicer characters in the series can paint you that way, I guess). Piper and Josh Hartnett put in committed work as far as nudity is concerned, the former’s “lost cause” love interest even managing to earn sympathy when she denies herself a night on the town with her new beau because she feels too worthless, but both characters are too thinly etched to be truly engaging. For his efforts, Hartnett does provide some dashing Hollywood glamour as the closest thing the group has to a moral compass, but his big reveal in the finale is both the most telegraphed twist in TV history or the most clumsily handled depiction of lycanthropy in recent years (we don’t even get a full-on transformation, which for a show with such high production values is almost irredeemably unfair).
The weakest link of the cast though is the one enlisted to inhabit the most iconic literary antihero to play. Broadway star Reeve Carney is certainly a handsome enough fit for Gray and manages to hold on to a consistent enough English accent all the way through, but the pan-sexual dreaminess he tries to imbue comes across as too caddishly cheeky to be truly alluring, never mind threatening; as a result, the moment he’s meant to feel an emotion other than horny smugness near the end doesn’t pack nearly as much of a punch as Logan clearly intended. Most ill-served of all though is Danny Sapani‘s right-hand man Sembene, who does little but intone wisdom and/or warning with a single line of dialogue each episode and kick admittedly impressive swathes of shit out of an ever-increasing army of platinum blonde vamps; here’s hoping the Magical Negro stereotype eludes him thanks to something resembling a backstory in the next season. True, some characters are bound to suffer short shrift on the development angle even in an eight-part mini-series, and perhaps Logan was fully confident that Dreadful was going to register enough interest for a second series to be commissioned so as to assuage these qualms in the next run, however it still made for a choppily-paced season wherein some plotlines and characters were left to dangle after a couple of episodes whilst there was a whole episode devoted to a Vanessa/Sir Malcolm flashback.
One thing to note about Dreadful though is that Logan retains a solitary writing credit for all eight episodes, which may explain how overcrowded with potential offshoots the series is, the self-edit button not quite knowing whether to simply hint at certain goings-on or spoonfeed the audience the whole spiel. Perhaps he can share the writing with others next time so as to help streamline certain elements in order to let others take their hold and weave themselves together more fluidly; having an extra couple of episodes will likely serve him well as there are now at least four different narrative arcs featuring an American werewolf in Victorian London, vampires tattooed with end-of-days hieroglyphics, Frankenstein monsters and immortal playboys to deal with. It’s great that Dreadful has quite a few avenues to travel down, but storyline management from episode-to-episode will need to be a little tighter to maintain a slicker, more breathless pace to keep it from flagging. A couple of suggestions; opening up the “Ripper Returns” storyline to include more scenes of Sir Malcolm’s posse interfering with police investigations, which in turn will give Hartnett a lot more worried-glancing to do. And more of Helen McCrory‘s delirious Madame Kali and less of the disposable vampire harpies; in fact they can be replaced with some more of the creepy fuckers above, please.
After all is said and done though, I’m definitely in for next season because there have been moments on this show that I haven’t seen on TV before, and to get that excited must be worth something. The purpose of a first season is to lay as much foundation as possible so as to have the following series launch the show into the stratosphere, and Dreadful has more or less done that, despite dropping the ball somewhat with an anti-climactic finale; Vanessa and Sir Malcolm were well-served with their newly fortified father-daughter relationship, but no werewolf carnage AND no Dracula?? Give us something more than another anonymous vampire slaughter and Rory Kinnear whining about being alive, please!? However, there’s plenty of dark, fertile ground for the show to grow from and so long as Dreadful somehow sharpens its focus on the larger canvas, there’s no reason why Logan and company can’t turn it into one of the most successful horror shows on TV. In a how of goodwill, I even end this entry on my favourite line from the series…
(“…did you name…the mountain after me?…”)