I saw the first episode of Penny Dreadful a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t blog about it because I was left feeling rather ambivalent about the show, and I was curious to see where the various plot-threads might be leading before leaping to any sort of judgement. I mean, it was clearly salacious schlock, but there was something rather appealing about the idea of reimagining The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie as gory, gothic horror… and I’m always glad to see Eva Green getting work (and wearing period costume)! Sadly, the second episode knocked me off that metaphorical fence… or rather, I jumped off after an inexplicable, interminable séance scene, in which ‘Vanessa Ives’ (Green) channelled the sweary, squeaky-voiced spirit of ‘Sir Malcolm Murray’s (Timothy Dalton) dead son… or a demon pretending to be him… or something. I honestly couldn’t tell you what was going on in that scene, or how we were supposed to feel about it… all I know is that it went on waaaay too long, and featured far too many C-bombs and cricky-necks to be taken seriously. If they’d cut it down by ten minutes or so, and it might have been quite chilling… rather than an over-cooked embarrassment for all concerned. And I really wish they hadn’t dragged Helen McCrory into it, making a cameo as a spiritualist named “Madame Kali”. Tch!
Another factor pushing my finger towards the “off” button, was the introduction of Billie Piper as ‘Brona Croft’, a snarky street-walker who manages to charm every man she meets, despite the fact she’s sickly with consumption, and affecting an incomprehensible “Irish” accent. Feh. Despite being unable to understand half of what she was saying, I might have been more accepting of her presence if it hadn’t been for the extremely unlikely co-inky-dinks that saw her randomly meeting one of the show’s established “heroes” (Josh Hartnett) in a flop house bar, before dashing off for an impromptu photo session with a brand new addition to the main cast: a young-ish man claiming to be ‘Dorian Gray’ (Reeve Carney). I quite enjoyed their macabre scene together, as he became increasingly turned on by her deathly symptoms… but I thought the contrivance of having Brona inadvertently encountering (and immediately bonding with) two of the show’s leading men in the space of a few scenes was just a little too convenient. Especially since Dorian then went on to meet Vanessa and Sir Malcolm at the séance-centric soiree, and inevitably took a fancy to the former. I suppose if you were being charitable, you could say that all of these confluences were evidence that the characters were being drawn together by Destiny… but you could just as easily put it down to crappy writing.
I also object to the fact that people keep casting Dorian as a brunette, when he’s clearly stated to be a blond (with “crisp gold hair”) in the original novel! And that’s not just a petty surface detail… many white-folk are blonder in their childhood years than in their adolescence and adulthood*, so in our culture blondness has become associated with youth and innocence, which are vital thematic elements of the story that Oscar Wilde wrote, dammit! While we’re on the subject of authorial intent, I also think it’s a little insulting that the creators of this show have decided to cram elements of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray into a single season of television, as if those stories weren’t rich or compelling enough to sustain a series by themselves. While I found this “throw it all in the pot, and heat it up” approach to horror movie tropes quite amusing and exciting in American Horror Story, when it’s applied to classic literature, I find it rather more objectionable. Is that snobbish of me? Probably, yes.
I suppose with a title like “Penny Dreadful”, I really should have known what to expect from the outset… it’s just a shame that the writers have chosen to live down to those expectations, rather than rise above and confound them…
* I was blond as a child myself, but my hair turned dark brown as I got older… now it’s turning grey… c’est la vie!