Dracula meets Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man meets Dr Jekyll meets Mr Hyde meets Dorian Grey

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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.

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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 … ?”

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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.

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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.”

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Sad men

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This series has been cancelled. Happyish (Showtime; Sky Atlantic) is no more. That’s your lot. It’s been and gone. What turned out to be the tenth and final episode of the Shalom Auslander-scripted gloomcom went out on Showtime in June last year, though happily all are now available to view on Sky catch-up. Happyish was axed. Which is a more melodramatic way of saying that the broadcaster declined to recommission it, which is in the broadcaster’s gift. Even cable is cut-throat. In the strong language of the show itself, “F— you, Showtime.”

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It had a troubled birth. A show about a depressed 44-year-old advertising executive who’s feeling his age in an increasingly youth-skewed industry, it was written by Auslander (a David Sedaris-like author and humorist) with Philip Seymour Hoffman in mind. He’d agreed to do it, and a pilot was filmed, but then he died. Which is a very Happyish thing to do. Steve Coogan was drafted in, and the character remained the same, except he was now an expat Brit with one of those frankly irksome, bendy transatlantic accents, which Coogan is very good at, as it’s one I think he slips into in real life as soon as he lands at LAX. (We’re witnessing John Oliver develop one before our very ears on Last Week Tonight.)  The key word here – and it’s a word that’s said A LOT in Happyish – is “asshole.” It’s pronounced as if it were a hole belonging to an ass, not to an arse. Asshole.

The first episode begins as the single season means to go on, with Coogan’s character, Thom Payne (geddit) saying “Fuck you!” to Thomas Jefferson, and raising the finger to camera. In a subsequent episode he does the same to God. It’s this kind of metatextual, Billy Liar-ish fantasy element that makes Happyish Marmite; Payne regularly consults animated characters from adverts, and in one episode he and his wife Lee (Katherine Hahn) join Moses (a Richard Kind cameo) in the Promised Land. I’m all for it, and am currently racing through the one and only season, wishing there were more, but knowing there isn’t, which is an odd feeling. (I remember watching the first episode of David E Kelley medical drama Monday Mornings, enjoying it, then reading that it had been cancelled by TNT after one season, and I instantly lost the will to carry on watching it. It’s like befriending someone on death row)

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Happyish is an “authored” sitcom, the kind of thing we do well over here, and it’s clear that the entire cast are speaking for Auslander, whether old, young, black, white, Jewish, not Jewish, American or English. Again, I don’t mind that. I love mithering, neurotic Jewish humour. The cast is tip-tip, with roles for Ellen Barkin as a cougarish headhunter, Andre Royo (Bubbles!) as Payne’s best pal, Carrie Preston as an agency creative and Bradley Whitford, particularly enjoyable as Payne’s alcoholic, colic fiftysomething boss (I think – they seem to be equals, but not). But you could take a line from any character except perhaps the Paynes’ son, and give it to any other character. Hahn manages to find her own brand with a force-of-nature performance. While Coogan (likeable no matter how grey the cloud above his head gets) is essentially depressed and cynically fatalistic the whole time, she has her art and grabs moments of free-spirited joy, which are then crushed by routine and parenthood and reality. It basically supplants Mad Men to the 21st century of Silicon Valley, throwing in viral marketing, social media and Google, and relocating its central couple to bucolic, organic but snowbound Woodstock, where Lee can nurture her utopian, anti-consumerist dream of not buying an iPhone. (She is the anti-Betty.)

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If you look at its ratings on Showtime, they go from 0.4 million to 0.2 million. I don’t think this is even workable on a cable network. (The Affair, albeit much more mainstream, tips 1 million on Showtime; Ray Donovan does 1.5 million; the more comparable Episodes only gets 0.5 but it’s been steady for four seasons. Meanwhile, Mad Men was getting at least 2 million on AMC.) I’m sad – if not as sad as Thom Payne – that my enjoyment of Happyish will be cruelly finite (I have three episodes to go and am trying to savour them), but TV is cruel. Fuck you, TV!

 

He’ll be back

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SPOILER ALERT

NO, REALLY, SPOILER ALERT!!!!

IF YOU HAVEN’T YET SEEN THE SEASON SIX FINALE OF THE WALKING DEAD AND DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS AT THE END OF IT, PLEASE STEP AWAY FROM THE BLOG.

Good. I’m among friends. The man with his back to us in the screengrab above is Negan. He is a bad man. One of the worst men. All through Season 6 of The Walking Dead (AMC; Fox), we’ve scented him. Negan, a name top-loaded with negativity and carefully chosen to rhyme with “Reagan”, has struck fear into us since Episode 8, when Daryl, Abraham and Sasha are held up by some organised bandits called the Saviours who explain, “Your property now belongs to Negan.” From hereon in, Negan took on mythic status, and when he finally stepped out of his trailer, inscousiant and grinning, like Jeffery Dean Morgan’s investigator Jason Crouse over on network TV in The Good Wife except with menaces and a sporting implement, it was almost a relief.

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If you’re reading the source comics (which I’m not, although I occasionally dip in to see what a character looks like on the page for comparison to the televisual incarnation), you’re ahead of the series. You know what Negan is capable of, and what he actually does (“KRAKK!”); more crucially, you’ll know which of our heroes gets beaten to probable death at the end of Episode 16, Last Day on Earth. We, the hapless viewer, can only guess. Then wait six months to find out. And there’s the rub.

I have read that “fans” are displeased by this cliffhanger. I don’t really know who these “fans” are, as I don’t frequent TWD forums, or search social media for consensus. I can’t think of anything worse than having my phone to hand while watching a TV show, all the better to scroll through Twitter and find out what people I’ve never met think of the TV show I’m in the process of watching. I find watching stimulus enough, with perhaps occasional real-time comment with a close family member. In this regard, perhaps I am not a “fan”, although having watching TWD from Episode 1, and only dipped out during Season 2, I feel like one. You have to mean it, man. It’s an arduous watch sometimes, and intended to be. It can be existentially dispiriting and doomy. It is, after all, a metaphor for the world we live in, always on the edge of collapse and feral survivalism. There but for the grace of God etc.

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Dread, recoil, tension, disgust, these are its tag words. Smiles are rare. Laughs rarer. Relief from the grinding, death-stalked misery and paranoia comes only fleetingly, a portent of further grinding, death-stalked misery and paranoia. Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his ever-evolving band of bedraggled brothers and sisters have moved home a number of times, but it’s never a wise idea to put out too many framed photos on the bedside table. The Walking Dead is uniquely horrible, and that’s why I love it. We tend to tape it and watch it early in the evening, rather than last thing at night. Because who would want to submit to sleep with nightmares already sloshing around?

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Like any “fan”, I have my ups and downs with the show. But what “fans” seem pissed off about after Season 6 is the manipulative nature of the cliffhanger. Which of our assembled 11 goodies – Rick, Glenn, Daryl, Michonne, Maggie, Rosita, Aaron, Sasha, Abraham, Carl, Eugene – has been beaten to death by Lucille, Negan’s pet name for his barbed-wired-wrapped baseball bat? This is cable TV, after all, and Game of Thrones, another gory fantasy based on a literary property, has helped establish the unsettling lottery of principal-character mortality in the line of narrative duty. Nothing is sacred. No-one is immune. That said, it won’t be Rick. (Or Aaron – who would care if Aaron died?) Lest we forget, the mid-season cliffhanger showed Glenn (Steven Yeun), another seemingly “safe” character, having his guts pulled decisively out by a scrum of walkers. But he survived. (They weren’t his guts; he was trapped beneath Nicholas, whose viscera they were.) Was this a cheek? Cheap fanbait? Was it manipulative? (Of course it was, it’s fiction, it manipulates.)

Ever since Dallas left us hanging over the small matter of who shot J.R., long-running drama has used a big question mark to keep us on the hook. The “death” or otherwise of Jon Snow on GoT in the show’s Season 5 cliffhanger is another recent case in point. In an over-connected world of chatter, such trifles get talked about to death. Jon Snow may or may not be dead, but the discussion is. (The Walking Dead’s companion show is called The Talking Dead. I have never watched it. I don’t want to see the actors out of costume, mucking about in a chat show setting as it breaks the spell.) I will find a way to survive for the next six months in what is necessarily a break from the show. “Fans” can discuss it until they’re left with nothing but a husk. Me, I have wondered who might have had their skull caved in by Negan, but I’m not losing sleep over it. I’m fairly sure it’s not Maggie, a pregnant woman, although that would be the brave choice for Scott M. Gimple and his 100 producers.

One thing I have learned re: the Negan Cliffhanger is that there are two distinct kinds of Walking Dead SPOILER: the TV SPOILER, and the comic-book SPOILER. A moany Guardian blog (“Fans had to wait almost a month to find out if Glenn made it out alive”) warned at the top of a TV spoiler, but gaily gave away who Negan caved in by way of a comic-book SPOILER. (This, by the way, is a SPOILER I won’t repeat. This is Telly Addict, not Comics Addict.)

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As a GoT “fan” who tried to read the first page of George RR Martin’s first Ice and Fire novel (“Now a major TV series!”) and couldn’t get further than halfway down it, I am a very content TV-only consumer. If you can stomach fantasy literature, and millions can, then you’re going to be watching GoT in a totally different way: largely unshockable, and a bit superior, knowing that the Red Wedding is coming and all that. The comic-book early adopters of TWD will be the equivalent. How much sleep they must lose over the fact that Negan doesn’t look like Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the comics? (I understand he’s supposed to look like Henry Rollins.)

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It’s possible to be a “fan” and not continually rail against the makers of the show you’re a fan of when things don’t pan out precisely how you want them to. It’s a commercial product on a commercial television channel, designed to sell advertising space, merchandise and DVDs, not a charity. Call it “Negan-omics.” If Season 6 ended in the middle of an innocuous sentence about growing sorghum wheat, rather than the showstoppingly violent death of one of 11 beloved-ish regulars, complaints would still be lodged at the highest level (ie. on a forum or Twitter). I look forward to finding out who is dead when the time comes. And then we’ll move on to the next cliffhanger.

KRAKK!