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.”

Writing for money

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I met Damien Lewis, socially, at the Peaky Blinders BFI event last week. He was there to support his wife Helen McCrory. I’ve known Billions (Showtime; Sky Atlantic) was coming since January when I read this lengthy profile of Lewis in the New Yorker. We chatted about Billions, and about working in America, which he predominantly has done since being cast in Homeland. I was fascinated to hear him talk about how rigorous and bracing the American writing method is for an actor. We all know that the crucial difference between British and US drama (and comedy) is money: that is, they can afford to hire teams of writers and put them on the payroll; we can’t. As a result, our drama and comedy has an authorial “voice”, but theirs has an industrial fine-tuning that we can’t match. (And nor, I suspect, would most British-based writers want to match.) Having now watched episode one of Billions, created by three men, Brian Koppelman, David Levien, David Cornejo (they can’t even have ideas on their own!), and co-produced/co-written by Andrew Ross Sorkin (Too Big To Fail), Willie Reale, Peter K Blake, Heidi Shreck and Wes Jones, it’s clear to see how much polishing and “punching up” goes into these team-written shows. It’s like the difference between a car being washed, and a car being washed and waxed.

Many of my all-time favourite US dramas are produced this way, writers’ room style, and I’m not complaining. I wouldn’t want to do it, but I’m glad they do. Just listen to some of the finely honed lines in episode one of Billions.

“The decisions we make, the judgements we bring, have weight.”

“My cholesterol levels are high enough, don’t butter my ass.”

“A good matador doesn’t kill a fresh bull. You wait until he’s stuck a few times.”

“You do an autopsy on the deal, you’ll find yourself a Pulitzer in the carcass.”

These are lines you can quote. Whether anyone in real life would ever say anything like this is debatable, even in the testosterone circus of high finance, the world Billions is set in. Steven Knight, creator and “author” of Peaky Blinders, told me that he hates the idea of working in a room full of writers. “I think writers’ rooms work with comedy,” he said. “But I’m not so sure with drama. It becomes about social interaction and who can dominate that room. The person who sits there doing nothing might write the best scripts. And if one person wants to do it this way and another person wants to do it that way, you end up doing it the middle way. Writers’ rooms do produce some brilliant stuff, but I don’t know how. It must be an American facility for that.”

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It’s learned behaviour. Sure, it’s entirely possible that “You do an autopsy on the deal, you’ll find yourself a Pulitzer in the carcass” was written by a single writer. But it’s much more likely to have been re-written by the room, until every cadence and every syllable works like a well-oiled machine. Ever since The West Wing, I have been captivated by these kind of hyperreal, almost vaudevillian speech patterns. (Andrew Ross Sorkin, by the way, doesn’t appear to be related to Aaron Sorkin, the monarch of this kind of stuff.)

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The first episode of any US series feels like a product. It’s more often than not the pilot, which sells the whole series, and the next, and the next. But if it’s done as well as Billions, all that effort feels like light work. We can just stretch back and enjoy the show. And with two leads like the almost feline Lewis, as the happily-married rags-to-riches hedge funder (he eats White Castle burgers at his desk), and character heavyweight Paul Giamatti as the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, facing up against each other from the off, there’s plenty to enjoy. The genius bullet-point is that Lewis’s billionaire, Axelrod (“Axe”) is the fund’s only surviving partner from 9/11 – he literally rose from the ashes – and while that haunts him with survivor guilt, it also gives him the altruistic cover any predator in Wall Street needs (he’s actually based in Connecticut): he started a foundation for the families of his deceased partners and carefully keeps it just out of the public domain enough to make it seem like he’s not doing it for publicity points. Without this aspect, Billions would be worth less.

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The first concentric circle of supporting stars is also strong: Maggie Siff (Rachel from Mad Men) as the in-house shrink for masters of the universe who’ve lost their mojo, and Malin Akerman (Watchmen) as Lewis’s fightin’-Irish alpha-wife. David Costabile, as some kind of fixer, is also a welcome face – he was in Breaking Bad and Suits. The first episode also contained at least three solid reveals that show the confidence of the plotting (I won’t reveal them). There are some additional allusions in here, too that I dig – Axe’s dog territorially pisses in his kitchen and he admires it for doing so (explaining its instinctive actions to his two boys), and the sight of the same dog neutered, and with its head in a cone, which drives Axe to do something flamboyantly foolish in the public eye, which sparks the investigation that surely drives the first season.

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Sky Atlantic and Showtime have episode-dumped the entire season in one hit. I can’t wait to gorge on the remaining 11, which are already mocking me for not having seen them yet. This is already a series whose judgments have weight.

It’s no game

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There’s a brief respite from all the crudity in the crude Tina Fey and Amy Poehler comedy Sisters where, to illustrate what a bad time three uninvited party guests are having, we see them “enjoying” a night in with Game Of Thrones (HBO, Sky Atlantic). The buttoned-up host, Maya Rudolph, tells one of her guests off for referring to Prince Joffrey actor Jack Gleason by the actor’s name (“did you know he was the little boy in Batman Begins?”), reminding her that by breaking the spell “you’re not allowing yourself to live inside the fantasy world that they’ve so lovingly crafted for us.” The other guest is reminded of the “no phone policy”, and it is also revealed that they’re drinking alcohol-free wine, they have to take off their shoes, and there are further “rules”. The message is: all the fun is happening somewhere else.

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To love GoT is to denounce “fun” in the traditional sense. It is by definition hard work. You can’t casually watch it. (I’ll never forget the moment on The Culture Show when Lauren Laverne challenged David Simon over the unfriendliness of The Wire to the casual viewer, to which he mischievously replied, “Fuck the casual viewer.”) Rattling on about the new, sixth season, which began in the middle of the night here, but which I watched in comfort the evening after, to Andrew Harrison, Matt Hall and Jude Rogers on the inaugural Bigmouth podcast, I was shocked to discover that Jude follows the saga’s progress by reading online episode guides so that she can empathise with her GoT-addict partner, but doesn’t actually watch it. Having sat on the Best International Programme Bafta jury a couple of years ago, I watched Game Of Thrones literally divide a room, almost down the middle. Jurors – the great and the good of British TV – either loved it, or hated it. It didn’t even make the shortlist that year. Which is an ignominious fate akin to something Ramsay Bolton might cook up for one of his best friends, considering it is regarded by many people as the greatest current show on television. This is how many.

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Correction: that’s how many people legally watch the show on HBO in the States. Beginning with 2.2 million (already a jackpot for cable), it has grown to around 8 million and holds steady. It’s illegally watched by millions, and even though I have nightmares about creative people not being recompensed for their labours, I do like the way certain executives on the production are sanguine about torrents and piracy – after all, it’s illegally seen by superfans, who may well invest at other stages in the product.

Sorry, did I call it a product? Game Of Thrones is a way of life. I’m wary of using words to describe it, as Clive James has done that, at length, in the New Yorker, and it’s free to read online. There’s rarely any point writing about something Clive James has written about. But what I will say is this pertinent thing: Episode One of Season Six, The Red Woman, was perfectly adequate. It did the job. It moved things along a bit. It was an episode of Game Of Thrones. What other show that you love to death would you let get away with just getting from A to B – and sometimes not even get to B? There was once an entire season that was just about getting from one place to another place, but that’s broadly the gist. The Red Woman picked up the ball moments after the end of Season Five, Mother’s Mercy, with a dead Jon Snow in the snow and panic on the ramparts of the Wall, Sansa and rebooted Greyjoy on the run from Bolton, Jamie sailing into King’s Landing with a shrouded Myrcella to reunite with his sister-bride the subdued but vengeful, Margaery in the clink with the “confess” woman (“Confess”), Jorah and Daario in search of Daenerys, and Arya on the streets with those cataract contacts in. Stuff happens: a spear through the back of the head, timely intervention by Brianne and Pod, and a terrifying revelation about Mellisandre being the most memorable. But still we fixate.

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Clashes of kings, queens, princes, princesses, high priests and priestesses, lords, ladies, knights, witches, white walkers, wildlings, bastards, eunechs, wolves, crows, dragons, at least one imp and at least one Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and of the First Men, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons … a cast of thousands, a vast geography that literally requires a map, umpteen castles, keeps, longboats, dungeons and catacombs, and one iron throne that has borne many a bottom in its time. Clive James was put off by all this guff – and so, on past form, should I have been – but it wins you round with sheer commitment to a set of fat books that millions have read, but which no longer provide a handy guide, as the TV series has overshot author George RR Martin’s text. It’s on its own now. We’re fixating without a safety net, and the “readers”, as I think of them, may no longer lord it over the rest of us, whom I think of as “viewers”. It has been a grand struggle for succession, and the “viewers” are in the ascendant.

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If you want eye-popping detail, and witty insight, you simply must follow Sarah Hughes’s Guardian episodes recaps, and – if you can bear to look – the comments beneath. Sarah is the one true queen to those of us who take off our shoes, forswear our phones and live inside the fantasy world that they’ve so lovingly crafted for us.

Confess.

 

 

Check the guy’s track record

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The People Vs OJ Simpson (FX; showing here on BBC2) comes under the anthology title American Crime Story, itself spun off from the anthology title American Horror Story, the ingeniously regenerative device of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk that has given us the thoroughly unpleasant Murder House, Asylum, Coven, Freak Show and Hotel (I watched all of the first three with glee, but bailed on Freak Show and have boycotted Hotel because Lady Gaga seems to be in it). Despite the wily, self-aggrandising rebrand, The People Vs OJ Simpson is a horror story as well as a crime story. Murphy and Falchuk treat those two impostors just the same. In their eyes, all stories are camp. This would remain the case if they launched American Sports Story, or American Accounting Story. And I hope they do.

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I know the OJ saga is in the public domain (and I remember the highlights of the legal circus from the time), but I have taken an unusual path with The People Vs OJ: I bought the book. I became instantly smitten with the show: its heightened tone, its showboat casting, its fixed setting at eleven. And after two episodes (there are ten), I sent off for Jeffery Toobin’s The Run Of His Life, published in 1997, which seems to reign as the definitive article. Five episodes in now, and I’ve finished reading it, unable to put it down. Way more than a court transcript, it does what the New Yorker does, which is to say: humanise reams of information. (Toobin began his story covering the trial for the New Yorker, and quickly became part of it, when police detective Mark Fuhrman sued defence lawyer Bob Shapiro, Toobin and the magazine over a leak.)

I usually make a point of not reading books that are going to be made into films. Indeed, I’ve been evangelical about it in the past. But I read Room by Emma Donaghue specifically because I knew it was coming out as a film, and I was glad I did. Even though it meant I knew where the story was going when I subsequently saw it, I felt that the experience of reading it (told from the point of view of the captive five year old son) was improved by having no pre-warning. I started reading High-Rise by JG Ballard in advance of the film, too, and in doing so, I better understand why the film didn’t quite work: it’s JG Ballard’s fault! Reading The Run Of His Life has been entirely different. We all know the outcome. We watched it on the news in 1995. Toobin’s book is predicated on the understanding that we know the ending, and that the ending is a grotesque travesty of justice; that OJ Simpson did murder Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in cold blood.

The book was safe to read. But having now read it, I am getting so much more out of the TV show. I know that it’s based on fact. It’s a matter of record. Sure, it’s exaggerated for effect – in real life, Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran’s legal team did not file into Judge Ito’s courtroom in slow motion on the day that they discovered that the prosecution had strategically added Deputy District Attorney Christopher Darden to the team, nor did they do so to the lowdown mid-90s G-funk tune Black Superman – but it’s factually accurate, it’s on the books (it was on Court TV, if you cared to watch it, and lived in America). Any surgical enhancement by the writers Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, D. V. DeVincentis, Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky and Joe Robert Cole is rooted in fact. Except maybe the retro-fitted bits featuring the Kardashians. But the case is open and shut. If I hadn’t read the book, I might not have believed what went on actually went on.

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It’s a cliché, but you couldn’t make it up. When prosecutor William Hodgman (Christian Clemenson) has a panic attack and faints in court, as a viewer, you’re assuming this must be made up. It’s dramatised for effect, but it pretty much happened. There it is on page 259 of Toobin’s account: “Hodgman noticed a strange feeling in his chest … a tightening … the sensation didn’t go away … paramedics were called.” That the actual trial descended into grave farce is a gift. I can’t wait for the black glove. I can’t wait for prosecutor Marcia Clark’s mid-trial haircut, according to Toobin “a much-admired transformation that landed her hairdresser on Oprah.” (Sarah Paulson is my favourite among a stellar cast – I’ve seen pictures of Clark and the resemblance is sound, although it’s reading about her on the page that paints the clearest picture and Paulson has worked it all into her performance.)

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Dramatising “actual events” is a common thread on modern TV, true crime is so fashionable people will even listen to it on a podcast, never mind on glossy cable TV, and actors seem to spend most of their careers now doing “karaoke” turns as real people. But we all accept  artistic licence, otherwise you’re literally just watching great actors read out transcripts. The skill, I think, with The People Vs OJ, is in organising the material in such a way that it slots neatly into ten episodes. See how they used the famous white Bronco chase to tease us from episode one into episode two (“The Bronco’s gone!” gulps David Schwimmer’s pathetic Robert Kardashian, a line that only works if we know exactly where the Bronco has gone and is going). Episode five ends with an imagined vignette of Furhman listening to what sounds like Wagner while admiring an Iron Cross among his collection of Nazi memorabilia. This was a cheaper trick – like a cliffhanger from Dallas – but it works as television. And this is fabulous television.

Just let me know when American Gardening Story starts and I’ll be there.