I wasn’t sure about Penny Dreadful (Showtime; Sky Atlantic) at the birth. Something about the random-seeming audacity of mashing up Frankenstein, Dracula and The Picture of Dorian Grey into one over-the-top show. (That Victorian reading list has since expanded to include The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and incorporates The Wolf Man, which was a film.) But it came alive and fell into place for me in episode two when Eva Green’s apparently possessed protagonist crawled over the seance table of Helen McCrory’s spiritualist like a potty-mouthed Dickensian Linda Blair in The Exorcist, and the very same audacity revealed itself not to be random after all, and clicked. Created by John Logan (Gladiator, Skyfall), this was actually a flamboyant, costumed challenge to purists, and a gift from one horror aficionado to another. It was in the spirit of Universal’s mercenary 1940s brand-offs like Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man and Abbott & Costello Meet The Invisible Man – except deadly, if not at all times deadly serious.
Now, three episodes into season three, I believe it has entered its baroque period. It’s as if the show itself is a manifestation of Simon Russell Beale’s continually finessing facial topiary. After what I felt were a couple of longueurs in season two (I zoned out of the Cut Witch diversion, even though I accepted that it had backstory ballast, as I wanted to get back to the thrilling present with the wax museum, the Pinkertons and the Verbis Diablo), this one swaggers with an inflated confidence and seems to want to break its own taboos. (Without giving too much away for latecomers, there was scene in episode three that involved three-way sex and enough blood to fill a barrel.) John Logan is the presiding genius, creator and showrunner, the Frankenstein to Penny Dreadful’s monster, and his has been the only ever writing credit. That’s 21 hour-long episodes thus far without the visible fingerprint of another writer on them. Producers are credited, but never specifically as writers. I’m certain it’s tabled and punched up, but it’s a rare example of an “authored” US show. It exhausts me just to think about Logan typing every single word. Boardwalk Empire was written by around 20 people over its five seasons; Breaking Bad at least a dozen; even The Knick, which was written predominantly by its two creators, had another loyal captain standing by to take up the slack. Logan makes me think of the Tom Waits song, in which he repeats, “What’s he building in there … ?”
Penny Dreadful warns of adult themes and scenes of a sexual nature, and has had them from the start (remember Rory Kinnear’s entrance as the creature?), but it is fundamentally a whole heap of fun. Blood is spilled. Blood is smeared. Blood is sucked. Blood rains down on a ballroom full of dancing Victorians and paints the walls of an inn after a massacre. But what season three does, already, is to get out of town. Previously confined to London, which looked suspiciously like Dublin, it has lately exploded into the Wild West, the Arctic (a direct nod for scholars to Mary Shelley’s text) and Africa – what Logan describes as “different geographies” – and it’s quite a treat to see the sky at last. Just as films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre challenged the precepts of “noir” by heading out into the baking sun, Penny Dreadful has pushed back the perimeter fence of Gothic.
A word on the cast. Eva Green has always been a challenge, as her character, Vanessa is by factory setting an unsmiling, unapproachable “project” of a woman, but she inhabits it like Helena Bonham Carter might do, except without the knowing smirk. Vanessa does not smirk much. Her current window of romance is set to slam shut, and her mania to revisit her past through Patti LuPone’s therapist promises much. (Logan describes the series as being about “one woman’s journey to faith” – hers.) Timothy Dalton has found the role of his life as the grizzled, grieving Sir Malcolm, an amalgam of every retired 19th century adventurer and the motley cast’s father figure; as has Josh Hartnett, a former lightweight who rises to the challenge of the lycanthropic cowboy. A thrill, too, this season, to see Wes Studi (Last of The Mohicans, Dances With Wolves) with his striking features seemingly carved from a rockface, and the promise of Brian Cox to come, no slouch either in the geological physiognomy. The lithe, panda-eyed Harry Treadaway now spars in the lab with Shazad Latif (the IT guy from Spooks and Clem Fandango from Toast!), while Billie Piper and Reeve Carney as the Bride of Frankenstein and Dorian Grey get to grips with new kid Jessica Barden – their story is only just coagulating. Rory Kinnear had an intriguing story in season two, leading to self-exile, but in digging into his past, season three seems to have somewhere deep to go – a rhyme with Vanessa’s rebirthing, perhaps. Oh, and Samuel Barnett as a boyish Renfield – there are no flies on him.
I find the show heady and preposterous, fine and dandy, dark and troubling; in going over the top it gets under the skin. I think Lou inadvertently summed up Penny Dreadful in 1951 in Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man: “I went to shake his hand, his hand was gone. I looked up to speak to him, his head was gone. Then he took off his shirt, his body was gone. He took off his pants, his legs were gone! Then he spoke to me, I was gone.”