Occasionally, the right cast can trump relatively mundane material, and so it is with the opening arc of “Penny Dreadful,” the macabre Showtime series that turned Victorian-era monsters into a mashed-up smorgasbord of bawdy delights. Already renewed, the show aired its season finale Sunday, tying up a few loose ends while unfurling enough new ones to be both mildly satisfying and intriguing.
Series creator John Logan’s florid concoction hardly broke new ground. Indeed, throwing together characters like Dr. Frankenstein and Dorian Gray essentially mirrored the template employed on “The League of Extraordinary Gentleman,” which was turned into a very disappointing movie given the promise of the source material. (Notably, Gray and minor “Dracula” characters played a part in that as well.)
Exhibiting little growth from the early stages of the series, the action sequences remained indifferent right up through the finale (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched), with generic-looking creatures and scant sense of what’s required to dispatch them. Presumably, that sword belonging to Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) – the one with which he skewered the foul-looking, Nosferatu-esque beast with the glowing eyes and pointy teeth – had some silver in it, but who’s to say?
Still, “Penny Dreadful” seems more content to luxuriate in its atmosphere than sweat the details, and for the most part, that worked. The scenes involving Dalton and Eva Green as the mysterious psychic Vanessa possessed a consistent poetry, just as Rory Kinnear’s tragic, lonely monster gave a soul to Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. And while it made perfect sense, turning Billie Piper’s consumptive, doomed prostitute into the monster’s bride made perfect sense as soon as the good doctor compassionately placed his hand on the creature’s shoulder.
Moreover, the series maintained such flourishes throughout. So when Professor Van Helsing briefly showed up (yes, that Van Helsing), he was played by the invariably splendid David Warner, lending an additional touch of class to the proceedings.
As stated in the original review, in some respects “Penny Dreadful” is more about portfolio management than anything else for Showtime, representing a genre that has historically paid dividends in the pay-cable realm. Granted, the series yielded buzz-worthy moments over the course of its run – one suspects many savored the interlude involving Josh Hartnett’s cowboy and the irresistible Gray (Reeve Carney) – but the real pleasure came from seeing what minor wrinkles Logan and company brought to these much-adapted literary characters.
“Penny Dreadful” isn’t great, but it lives up – or down – to the spirit of the lurid publications that provided the series its name. And in terms of the criteria that guide a premium service, that’s perhaps the most significant endorsement — that for those with a taste for such fare this first season, whatever its flaws, should have given them their money’s worth.