Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) are hunting dark forces in London. Soon they are aided by gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway).
This gothic show features all our favourite monsters in new and fascinating combinations. The setting is not new, however. Most of the characters (Frankenstein, vampires, Dorian Grey, etc) are right at home in Victorian London. The style is not new, except that it is perhaps the darkest version of this type of show I have seen in some time. So how can such a classic concept feel so damn fresh?
The plot, characters, writing and true adherence to the gothic spirit, is what makes the show. With these characters, some new, some classic, thrown together, anything can happen. To put it simply: this is what the latest Dracula tv-version with Jonathan Rhys Meyers should have been. Dark, surprising, and always drawing you in. The writing hits just the right level of gravitas you except from people battling forces of evil, and it also layers the reveals very well. Only a few “secrets” are too obvious to keep from the audience, but the slow explanation of the other background stories and motivations keep the focus nicely divided. So, if you find one character more interesting, just wait a bit.
Everything else is nice and mysterious. Eva Green is deeply disturbing as the spiritual Vanessa who can commune with unseen forces, which later graduates to possession. Timothy Dalton plays Sir Malcolm, an adventurer desperate to relieve his guilt, who still manages to be a total asshole. In general, none of the character are completely likable, but it works. The closest is actually Dr. Frankenstein, who is haunted by his monster.
Most difficult to accept at first was Ethan Chandler. Josh Hartnett is not someone who springs to mind when you describe a gunslinger with a past. Once he gets into the meat of the role, however, he proves surprisingly subtle. His past (and secret) are perhaps the most obvious, but in the last episode especially, we caught a glimpse of an interesting hidden side.
Even with so many characters (I haven’t even mentioned the lovely Dorian Grey, or Chandler’s love-interest played by Billie Piper), the show never feels crowded, confusing or unstructured.
So far, not one episode has been without merit. Occasionally, there are moments that feel forced, but sometimes it’s simply because the payoff hasn’t come yet. This is HBO, so you have to go in expecting some gratuitous nudity. Pairing Chandler with Dorian Grey, though, feels a bit pandering.
At seven episodes, we do have quite a few secrets and plot-lines to contend with, so I hope the show will start to solve a few of them before introducing any more. Right now, I can handle all the balls in the air, but it’s a delicate balance, especially when plot-lines are absent from entire episodes. One recent episode featured the entire backstory of Vanessa’s character, which meant a week went by without a reminder of everything else on everyone’s plate.
Since it is HBO, there is a fair amount of blood and gory details. The vampire design, while we haven’t seen it in all its glory, looks interesting yet kind of old-school. Let’s hope Penny Dreadful’s season payoff meets with expectations.