Thursday, July 23, 2015

TV Review: Penny Dreadful

I'm slightly wary of the ongoing fascination with the high Victorian era. Its a strange time - not yet modern but containing a lot of things that will lead into modernity, and social constructs - the clothes, the language, the locations - that are very familiar, but also different enough that we can be comfortable that it's horrors are safely in the past. There is chocolate box London that you see in so many adaptations, cloaked in snow and poverty, and the grinding mechanical technology so beloved of the Steampunk aesthetic. Its an era at the dawn of most of the modern fiction genres, which probably helps, and right there, mining out  it's dark heart for the horror fans, is Penny Dreadful, now returning for a second season. 

In it's first season, Penny Dreadful got a lot of mileage out of two main staples, Dracula and Frankenstein, and mixing them together in interesting ways and different takes on familiar characters and archetypes. It also benefited from some outstanding performances, especially from Eva Green and Timothy Dalton, let down only by Billie Pipers underwritten (and doomed) prostitute Brona, and the "why is he even in this?" character of Dorian Grey. It also left me with some reservations about how it handled Victorian sexual hysteria, although it was so bundled up in the of the Victorian silliness it never quite got in the way. 

With the Vampires dispatched (sort of), life for our team is complicated this year by immortal devil worshippers, about 50 years too early for the full-on Dennis Wheatley pastiche that they occasionally threatened to be. A couple of characters from last season join the main cast; Helen McCrory as the head evildoer, and Simon Russell Beale as a gloriously camp Egyptologist and exposition device. Shenanigans, as they say, ensue. 

At heart, Penny Dreadful is very, very silly. In fact, the sillier it gets the better it is. It works because it dances along a catastrophe curve of heightened, melodramatic storytelling fused to a cast that plays it absolutely straight. Each twist is grander, and bloodier than the last, and the cast commit to it fully, chewing up the scenery and spitting it out, chunk by bloody chunk. After being weak links last year, both Brona (now a resurrected Bride of Frankenstein) and Dorian both work well to set up Series 3, and even some of the more distaff sub-plots (Caliban's sojourn to the Waxworks museum) fit thematically into the structure of the show. 

Overall then, this is a show that is improved, smoothed out and generally much better than its initial run. It's confident enough to pull the cast apart, even giving us a pair of classic "bottle episodes" that end up as amongst the shows best. Its consistantly very enjoyable, a sort of adult-rated gothic pantomime, seemingly aware of what it is and determined to play the role it has set itself to the hint. It's nice to see something targetted so strongly at the cable market having so much fun, and it left me really looking forward to the next series, which promises even more heightened silliness.