Cast: Eva Green (“Casino Royale,” “300: Rise of an Empire”), Timothy Dalton (“Living Daylights,” “License to Kill”), Josh Hartnett (“Black Hawk Down,” “Pearl Harbor”), Harry Treadaway (“The Lone Ranger,” “City of Ember”)
Airdate, time: The premiere airs at 8 p.m. Sunday May 11 on Showtime
The premise: Some of literature’s most terrifying characters, including Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, and iconic figures from the novel Dracula are lurking in the darkest corners of Victorian London. “Penny Dreadful” is a psychological thriller that weaves together these classic horror origin stories into a new adult drama. The premiere episode is set in London in 1891. As the police investigate a series of gruesome murders, renowned explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Dalton) and the beautiful Vanessa Ives (Green) know there’s something darker at play. In search of someone close to them who has been lost, they recruit American sharpshooter Ethan Chandler (Hartnett) and Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Treadaway) to help them on their journey.
Highs: Two words – Eva Green. She’s sultry and mysterious. When Green’s onscreen, her Vanessa Ives gives off the strong sense that she’s harboring a secret, one that a viewer desperately wants to know. Other cast members that shine are Timothy Dalton and Harry Treadaway. Dalton, forming a team that can battle the supernatural, hasn’t had a role this meaty in years and he makes the most of it. Treadaway, who was excellent in “City of Ember,” deftly portrays a young Dr. Frankenstein who’s both arrogant and self-righteous. He’s a bit unstable, but hasn’t uncorked into the man Mary Shelley created in her novel. But my favorite character was Hartnett’s Ethan Chandler. I’ve never been that big of a fan of Hartnett but in this series his likeable cowboy is just like the viewer – on a strange, confusing journey.
Demons, curses and monsters are what “Penny Dreadful” is all about and it has plenty of all three. This show comes across as an odd mix of “Sherlock Holmes,” “The X-Files” and “True Blood” but with much more gore. While not for the squeamish, if any of those aforementioned programs whet your TV appetite, you’ll get a kick out of “Penny Dreadful.”
Lows: For the first half of the pilot, viewers are left with a series of sights bound to leave them wondering what’s going on. There’s a Victorian era James Bond wandering around London with a Victorian era Vesper Lynd. There are vampires, though ones different than most viewers are familiar with, and a doctor that doesn’t seem all that surprised when autopsying it. Throw in the absence of some much needed back story for the main characters and it’s a disorienting way to start a series.
Another issue is the show’s pacing. “Penny Dreadful” is set for an eight episode first season, yet the first two episodes I watched moved at a snail-like pace. I kept waiting for more things to be explained and for a deeper connection to the characters but didn’t get it. Instead of getting a slice of cake, all viewers get in the first two episodes is the frosting.
Grade: (C+): Penny Dreadful was the unofficial term for Victorian era stories that were inexpensive, had sensational titles (“Varney the Vampire,” “The Children of the Night”) and were told in weekly serials. In many ways the TV show based on this moniker lives up to the lurid promise of its Victorian counterpart but too frequently it can also leave a viewer in the lurch. “Penny Dreadful” has the potential to be as good as the shows it mimics; hopefully it can find a way to live up to them as well.