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Penny Dreadful Episode 1 Review: “Night Work”


Last night saw the premiere of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, which we’ve been pretty excited about because it has gothic horror and literary villains and Eva Green and Billie Piper and stuff. Our friends at Geekosystem were excited about it too! Here, Sam Maggs reviews the first episode.

It’s no secret that I’ve been pretty stoked for Penny Dreadful for months; but, as is so often the case with these things, the reality of a new series doesn’t always live up to the fog-clouded gothic expectations you’ve built up in your mind. Fortunately, Showtime’s new series gave me all the literary creepiness I wanted—and more.

First, a quick backgrounder about the show title: Penny Dreadful is not, in fact, the chosen name of a girl who probably shops at Hot Topic and doesn’t want to clean her room; it was actually a particular type of fiction published in the mid-nineteenth century. “Penny dreadfuls” were serialized fiction featuring sensational stories, printed on pulp, and sold for a penny on the streets or in many of the traveling libraries that popped up around England alongside the advent of train travel (people needed cheap pulp fiction to read on the train, you feel me?). Penny dreadfuls were essentially the Ghost Hunters or Golden Age comic books of the Victorian era.

Now that you’ve got yourself a solid history lesson, it should be no surprise to learn that Penny Dreadful is heavily influenced by literature, with nineteenth-century Gothic horror at the forefront. I mean, yes, there are the obvious things (vampires! monsters! fog! dead bodies! the supernatural!); but the show, in large part, also derives its tone and pacing from the sensational literature of the nineteen hundreds. “Night Work” is deliberately slow in delivering plot – by the end of the episode, we know the crux of the show is a hunt for a missing girl and not much else. Instead, the audience is treated to an episode that focuses on setting the tone for the series as a whole, the grimy darkness of London a fitting backdrop for the perfectly-Victorian cast of characters.

Because, seriously, everyone in this show is either a famous fictional character or recognizable literary trope. Timothy Dalton plays Sir Malcolm Murray, the African explorer/colonialist who belongs to an Adventurer’s Club and is pretty much just Allan Quartermain if that movie wasn’t such a major let-down. It’s Malcolm’s daughter Mina who’s gone missing, kidnapped by vampires, and it’s his story that drives the major plot of the show (so far). Malcolm lives with Eva Green’s enigmatic Vanessa Ives, the quintessentially mysterious gothic woman with the dark past—she’s somehow linked to Mina and potentially has some weird demonic business going on. But my favorite thing about Vanessa is the way in which she also manages to subvert our expectations for the gothic female; she has an almost Holmesian ability to read people, she’s authoritative, and she clearly has more to her than just that which serves Malcolm’s story.

Read the rest over at Geekosystem.

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