Showtime’s ‘Penny Dreadful’ Is a Fascinating, Potentially Great Mess

One of the questions that lingered in my mind while watching Penny Dreadful — and trust me, there were a lot of questions floating around there — was simply: What the hell is this show? Penny Dreadful is campy at times, but labeling it “camp” doesn’t feel quite right. It takes a serious, straight-faced approach to its “psychosexual horror” thrills. At the same time, though, it’s one of the most absurd shows that I’ve seen in a while. But maybe that’s a good thing.

Penny Dreadful borrows its title from the cheap but popular weekly publications of the 19th century. These booklets were full of sensational mystery and horror stories told in a serialized format, appealing mostly to adolescent boys. It’s a fitting title for a show that celebrates sensational horror, will likely become popular, and sometimes feels cheap.

Here are the basics: Penny Dreadful is Showtime’s new horror series that premieres on Sunday night — you can already watch the pilot, “Night Work,” on YouTube — and it will run for eight episodes, each one penned by John Logan (SkyfallSweeney Todd, and oddly enough, Rango). It takes place during the last decade of the Victorian era and borrows famous characters from various literary classics, placing them all within the same setting to coexist. That’s what I knew going in to the show, and that’s basically what I knew after watching it. I didn’t hate the first two episodes, not at all (to be honest: I was expecting to), but I’m not sure if I liked them, either.

Penny Dreadful is a mix of everything. The easiest comparison is American Horror Story, but this is better, deliberately slower, and has more care behind it. The directing and cinematography is reminiscent of the gorgeous, bloody aesthetic of Hannibal, but the plotting is more haphazard. I’m reminded of True Detective but with a supernatural element to the core mystery, and I can’t help but think of many broadcast networks’ varied attempts at adapting classic tales — Grimm, Dracula, Beauty and the Beast — tarted up with Showtime’s requisite nudity and alley-fucking. Despite the surface similarities to everything else, though, Penny Dreadful manages to remain a unique program, something that should be special but might get lost along the way.

Penny Dreadful is dark. There’s no getting around that. It takes place during a time when Jack the Ripper is still fresh in everyone’s minds, still causing everyone to look over their shoulders at every turn. It’s also a dirty and unhygienic show, as was the time, and the filth is only highlighted when it’s contrasted with some of the beautiful Victorian interiors. At the center of the story is a missing young girl — it’s always a young girl, isn’t it? — that Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) are desperate to find. They both believe that there is something more sinister and supernatural at play. Vanessa enlists the help of Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett), a sharp-shooting cowboy of a character who gets the series’ first sex scene, early in the pilot. He is a sometimes skeptic, but this isn’t going to be a Mulder and Scully relationship. Penny Dreadful needs everyone to believe in what it’s selling.

I’m hesitant to get into the specifics here because the good parts stem from the surprises throughout the episodes, such as the delight at recognizing characters that pop up. Though it’s no spoiler to say that Dr. Frankenstein is a regular — he’s prominently displayed on the billions of subway posters I’ve walked by all month — and the actor behind him, Harry Treadaway, is definitely worth praising. These popular characters are fun, but what’s important is that they don’t follow the preexisting narrative course that we’ve familiarized ourselves with. It’s a deviation, and that’s one of the keys to Penny Dreadful.

Another key here is the pacing. Penny Dreadful isn’t the type of show that routinely features fast cuts or rapid-fire editing designed to elicit quick shocks and jumps from the viewers. Rather, its horror is of the slow-burn variety, relying on long scenes that allow the scares to slowly sneak up behind you until you’re surrounded by unease. There is a drawn-out possession scene in the second episode, “Seance,” that only gets creepier as it goes on and on.

Yet for all of the good things that I can say about Penny Dreadful — the acting, particularly by Eva Green and her roster of icy stares, is fantastic, and the costumes are detailed and beautiful — I still can’t quite decide if it’s any good. The plotting barely makes any sense, and at times — at most times — everything happening is completely ridiculous. It is totally absurd, but it confidently owns this absurdity, almost daring you to question its ludicrousness.

Some shows are good from the beginning. Some shows remain smack in the middle, ready and able to go in either direction at any time. Penny Dreadful is of the latter variety. The first two episodes are messy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, by the end, the season ended up being pretty great. I also wouldn’t be surprised if it was a huge wreck and a waste of time.

“We all do things that cause us shame,” Dr. Frankenstein says gravely in the second episode. I guess my shame will be following Penny Dreadful to the end.