Awash in gothic atmosphere and tasty performances, “Penny Dreadful” puts a face on evil in its second season, and feels considerably richer for it. That countenance would belong to Helen McCrory, who plays the head of a Lucifer-worshipping coven, eager to hand over the psychic Vanessa (Eva Green) to the Prince of Darkness. John Logan’s creation still feels haphazard at times in the way it throws together macabre figures — a bit like the Universal monster mashes of the ’40s — but viewers who spend less time dwelling on details and go with “Penny’s” crimson-streaked flow will more than get their money’s worth.
Just to recap season one, Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) assembled a team to help him attempt to recover his demon-stolen daughter, including the aforementioned Vanessa, gunslinging American cowboy Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and a very young Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), whose chickens — OK, in this case immortal Creature (Rory Kinnear) — have come home to roost.
With the child-saving arc having been unsuccessfully completed, Vanessa now finds herself plagued by haunting visions, while Ethan is grappling with the after-effects of a lycanthropic blackout that has made him a slightly modified variation on an American werewolf in London. And if that weren’t bad luck enough, Frankenstein has agreed to create a bride for his lonely monster from the remains of Ethan’s former paramour (Billie Piper), which, if it’s anything like the 1935 classic, does not promise to end well. (Piper does get to sport something approaching her own hair, minus white streaks, for which both she and the hairstyling department should be grateful.)
In season one, Logan’s shadowy beasties never added up to much, and the rules for thwarting them stayed vague throughout. Yet the show remained entertaining and watchable largely because of its sensuous Hammer Film-like qualities, the wonderful casting and its modest wrinkles on these familiar characters.
That’s mostly true again in these initial episodes, with McCrory (perhaps best known Stateside for the Harry Potter movies and for portraying former British PM Tony Blair’s wife Cherie in “The Queen”) positively devouring scenery as the ruthless enchantress, convincingly spitting out lines like, “The Master won’t be denied his prize.”
The series format also affords Logan and his collaborators (James Hawes directed the premiere) to assiduously tease out stories at an unhurried pace, pausing to explore the lusty antics of Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) even though they remain somewhat peripheral to the rest of the proceedings. That’s not a problem, at least if the first season is any guide, since the show derives its kick from the getting there, not the destination.
Sumptuously shot in Ireland, the series thus represents a fine and frankly shrewdly calculated addition to Showtime’s roster, in the same way any savvy manager wants to assemble a diversified portfolio. If that sounds somewhat dismissive, remember that producing a credible gothic drama isn’t as easy as it sounds (just ask Netflix’s “Hemlock Grove”). Besides, given the appetite for the genre, a program that’s simply unapologetic fun, as this is, can be plenty good, “Penny”-wise.