Penny Dreadful might just be the most scary, sexy, fun show currently on television. More psychological thriller than gore and guts, the Showtime production benefits from complex characters and interesting mysteries that keep viewers coming back for more. If you haven’t yet checked out Penny Dreadful, and you really, really should, here’s a practically spoiler free rundown of what it’s all about.
Named for the cheap serialized horror literature of the Nineteenth Century United Kingdom, Penny Dreadful draws inspiration from these tales while providing thrills and chills in a thoroughly modern way. Think vampires, werewolves and witches oh, my, with a ton of Victorian Era sexual tension – and sex, a great deal of twists and turns.
At the show’s start Sir Malcolm Murray and Ms. Vanessa Ives are working together investigating what goes on in the dark shadows of London, which turns out to be an awful lot of supernatural not-goodness. Vanessa has some special abilities that not even she understands at first, beyond that she can read tarot and sometimes has visions. Eva Green is phenomenal in the role, transforming both emotionally and physically as the moment requires. She’s so engaging I could watch an entire show just about Vanessa. As the show goes on, you learn more about the how and why of her abilities, but I said this would be practically spoiler free, so let’s continue.
They quickly team up with Ethan Chandler, an American sharp-shooter, who joins their merry little band of supernatural hunters as a sort of bodyguard and hired gun. He’s running from a secret past in America that gets its own very satisfying slow reveal. Ethan is played by Josh Hartnett, who is also amazing to watch, less for dramatic changes and more for the subtlety he brings to the character. He’s also aging very well, I might add, and therefore very nice to look at.
Dr. Victor Frankenstein also gets drawn into their mission. He’s got some problems of his own to deal with, ahem ahem “his monster,” but makes time to get involved with Malcolm, Vanessa and Ethan’s problems, because he can’t ever seem to reign in his scientific curiosity. Eventually the whole gang forms an ever changing sort of familial bond that makes each character even more likeable.
One of the most interesting things about Penny Dreadful is how openly and fluidly sexual many of the main characters are portrayed. Hartnett said it best during a 2014 San Diego Comic-Con panel stating, “Under the circumstances, maybe every character could be attracted to one another in a certain way.” Without spoiling too much, we get to see that play out in many different ways during the show never for cheap effect and always with a realness that’s refreshing when it comes to the portrayal of LGBTQ characters on television.
And when it’s time for things to get sexy, Dorian Grey is at the center of the action a very good deal of the time. Yes, in essence the Dorian Gray of Oscar Wilde fame complete with compository portrait. He proves an irresistible distraction to some of our main characters, and he in turn proves to be just as drawn to at least one of them. But back to the plot…
We quickly learn that all of this supernatural searching is an attempt to find Malcolm’s daughter, Mina, who has gone missing. She was very good friends with Vanessa, the two grew up like sisters, until a falling out that sets both of their fates into motion.
Their story is revealed both through flashbacks that fill in the detailed history of how our main characters wound up where we find them at the show’s start and through the current action of the search for explanations into the supernatural occurrences surrounding them. And as the search continues, things get more and more tenuous for Vanessa as it becomes harder and harder to figure out if she’s controlling her abilities or if they’re controlling her.
That’s as much as I can tell you without spoiling the fun reveals that happen along the way! Let Penny Dreadful pull you into the darkness because once you start watching…