If you were to sell Penny Dreadful to a casual Showtime viewer curious about this show with a strong ensemble and enough Gothic gore to boot — sell it as Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman goes horror. If you are fans of the comic and not the dreadfully made 2003 film adaptation you will get the idea; take famous 19th century literary monsters and creatures and give them three midnight avengers to work off of. The show, which comes from the English name for cheap dime store novels, is quite a treat that moves at a rather quick pace although it does start to slow in the second half as the characters and plot begin to unfold.
The episode and presumably the show centers greatly on American Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) a traveling wild west showman passing through London. He comes into contact with a former explorer named Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and a “spiritualist” named Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). Together the three are on the hunt for whereabouts of Murray’s daughter who has gone missing in the vampire laced underbelly of 1891 London. The public is scared that recent murders are signaling the return of Jack the Ripper but its something more sinister and disturbing lurking in the shadows that can’t be made sense of.
Okay, before the eyes start rolling and the disgust begins to clamor up through your throat into an “ugh!” these aren’t your typical vampires. No Count Dracula’s (although there could be) and no sparkling teen vampires; these bastards don’t suck the blood, they rip flesh and body parts from limb to limb causing enough of a mess to make a British policeman hurl greatly into his bobby hat. Being a Gothic-based show on paid cable allows the gusto to be delivered in full force through much of the carnage displayed here and some choice language here and there.
The great thing with the pilot “Night Work” is you instantly have atmosphere set in place and the simplicity of it makes it the easiest for the viewer to register and retain. Victorian set shows always have a sense of grandeur that evokes a cinematic quality and that is felt greatly here. It also helps that main writer John Logan alongside executive producer Sam Mendes are key Hollywood players with both collaborating on the most recent James Bond film, Skyfall.
Speaking of Bond, Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm brings all the necessary gruff and age to a stoic and determined individual. He is torn by visions and a sudden appearance by his missing daughter Mina, but he never lets the demons kill the mission he and his partners have set out to complete. Much of the second half is dry and lighter in substance as we are given more time to explore both Murray and Ives as real characters. Sadly, Hartnett’s Chandler takes a backseat for the remainder of the show, which considering the fact he is a surrogate for the viewing audience, is quite surprising.
Hartnett is more than serviceable, as he always is, taking on the role of the disenchanted but eager to assist American type with little fear in him. It still has to be stated that what Chandler comes in contact with can easily scare the mind out of its wits. Green delivers another composed and clever female statesman character but, with the internal struggles of spirituality and religion rattling through her mind. There is also a young researcher who is terribly engrossed in the inner workings of the human body who Malcolm wishes to recruit to assist them but there is something more to him. I won’t divulge what that is because it would be taking the mickey out of the episode’s cliffhanger but needless to say its an insane but more than welcomed twist.
I can’t express enough how much of a joy “Night Work” was. While it doesn’t flash anything new in the horror series realm it’s a fun series that spooks and startles when eager to. Penny Dreadful thus far captures the viewers with a mere flick of the wrist by displaying easy yet internally complex characters, an engrossing atmosphere, and a situation that while not completely original is interesting and just waiting to be explored more in the weeks to come.