The late-19th century window around the Jack the Ripper murders has been an inordinately fertile and florid one for drama, which has included creative revisionism drawing on the literature of the day. So add to “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (turned into a less-than-extraordinary film) “Penny Dreadful,” Showtime’s macabre drama that fills London with creepy-crawlies and a colorful assortment of characters working to thwart them. Solidly entertaining, well cast and oozing with atmosphere, it’s a shrewd genre stab for the network, albeit by hewing closer to the sort of pulpy terrain to which Starz has, er, staked a claim.
Teeming with plot threads, the first two episodes are set in motion by famed explorer Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) and his mysterious colleague Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). Early on, they recruit an American wild-west sharpshooter, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), for some “night work,” making clear the fewer questions asked, the better.
Said work, however, puts the shell-shocked cowboy face-to-face with supernatural creatures, and it’s only then he discovers Sir Malcolm is hunting for his missing daughter — absconded with by one of them — while probing what Vanessa describes as a realm between the known world and a shadow one.
Frankly, that would probably be enough for the broadcast version of this, but “Penny” is just getting started. The extended posse also includes a young Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) — whose gift for anatomy is seen as an asset by Sir Malcolm — and Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), a libertine whose role in the larger story remains a mystery, other than providing an excuse for pay cable nudity.
Set in 1891, just a few years after the Ripper’s spree, the project capitalizes on the lingering fear created by those events, while playing with the audience’s understanding and expectations surrounding its better-known characters.
Created by John Logan and counting his “Skyfall” director Sam Mendes among the producers, “Penny Dreadful” (a not-quite-dreadful title, derived from the serialized publications of the day) doesn’t hurry the action, and some scenes linger surprisingly long, as the narrative flits around seeking to establish a dense mythology that includes Egyptian hieroglyphics and apocalyptic warnings.
If there’s a drawback here, it’s the slightly uneven production values. The monsters feel a trifle generic — more “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” than anything else — which doesn’t blunt the brooding atmosphere or the grisliness of their handiwork.
Simply put, pay TV thrives on cultish devotion — just witness HBO’s bubbling wellspring of it thanks to “Game of Thrones” — rendering sci-fi and/or fantasy a virtual must in any well-diversified portfolio.
By that measure, “Penny Dreadful” seems likely to yield dividends for Showtime. Whether the payoff is good for more than just a horror-seeking core will be determined after the opening two hours, seeing how well things keep going bump in the night.