Penny Dreadful / Screen

Penny Dreadful‘s “Night Work” is a Fun Who’s Who of Monsters

There are going to be a lot of bugs on this show.

If you can’t tell from the insect ridden credit sequence, all it takes is the scene immediately after as Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives prays before a crucifix and watches a spider crawl out and somehow find its way to her body. This scene in particular seems like a strange addition since, while “Night Work” lays some pretty strong groundwork with its other characters but still retains the mystery about them, Vanessa is easily the most shrouded in mystery. It’s not overwrought, however, as Vanessa grows more accessible as the episode progresses mainly through the work of Eva Green since the character still keeps a lot to herself. But she’s easily the most intriguing since Green perfected the icy and moderately dangerous look long ago. Between her confident walk through into the nest in the middle of heavy fighting to her purposeful stepping in front of a vampire-esque creature and giving it pause, Vanessa easily demands a lot of the attention of the first episode.

And I really love Eva Green so I’m certainly biased.

But Vanessa isn’t alone on the character list. Our heavily supernatural introduction to her is immediately followed by the goofy sharpshooting American Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) who wows a gathered crowd while Vanessa looks on, unimpressed. As the point of view shifts to Chandler, Penny Dreadful proves how much fun it (and we) are going to have peeling back the layers of the underworld of Victorian London (where the upside is just as dark, dirty and certainly unhygienic and still smarting from Jack the Ripper), where we guess which supernatural entity we’re going to see next. Chandler operates as an audience stand-in for a while, unfamiliar with the supernatural, unlike Vanessa and her buddy Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) so as he learns the world, we learn it, too. While Malcolm and Vanessa descend calmly into a vampire nest, Chandler’s both confused and disturbed but doesn’t hesitate to shoot the monsters attacking him, and since there’s no real way of knowing it’s a vampire nest (though I’m sure some viewers would guess) it’s a thrill to see that first glimpse of fangs.

Even with the added information about Penny Dreadful, being described as a monster mash of various characters from Dracula to Dorian Gray, it took me a minute to connect Sir Malcolm Murray with Mina Murray, the heroine of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And the daughter, and now vampire,  Malcolm and Vanessa are looking for. It’s going back to Penny Dreadful‘s slow unraveling of its premise that this felt like a twist even knowing the story of Dracula. If there’s a Mina can we assume there’s a Lucy, a Harker and a Van Helsing somewhere as well? And what’s Dracula up to anyway and how long will we have to wait to see him up close and personal?

Helping with the mystery is Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) who goes unnamed for most of the pilot but those familiar with Mary Shelley’s novel won’t have a problem recognizing him from his introduction as a mildly irritated but ambitious scientist who the trio turns to for answers to the vampiric creature they kill in the nest. The fun of the show lies in picking out the bits and pieces of Victorian era supernatural stories and seeing how they all fit, and Victor fits quite easily into the main plot of Malcolm and Vanessa’s mission to find Mina as the annoyingly ambitious assistant trying to do something amazing by finding the answer to life and death. There’s just enough mad scientist in Victor to call back to the source material, but Penny Dreadful‘s Victor may end up being less annoying than his literary counterpart and not nearly as horrified (not yet anyway) of his creation judging by his wondrous encounter with his alive and animated creature, introducing himself with glee that closed out the episode.

As far as first episodes go, “Night Work” is well done. There’s enough information imparted that nothing seems too flimsy though the many cryptic references the shadowy world Penny Dreadful inhabits may grate, but it also does a good enough job of applying some of that suspense to what’s coming next. It isn’t necessarily a horror show though there are a few scares, one of which is in the opening sequence as a creature pulls a woman through her window in the middle of the night and goes on to tear the entire family into pieces, and creator John Logan is clearly familiar with the horror tropes (like the camera following Victor and removing his monster from sight before coming back up with the scientist to reveal the empty space once occupied by the monster) to make them work well. With a strong cast and solid stories, Penny Dreadful could be up for a strong first season if only by coasting along on the anticipation of what (and who) it’s going to show us next.

Stray Observations

  • There are too many white people. That’s true of most things. There’s one black man, Sembane played by Danny Sapani, in the cast, and I’m holding off on my opinions on him since the first episode introduced him as Malcolm’s valet/butler. If he dies I’ll be angry.
  • Since the last televised attempt of Dracula I watched was NBC’s Dracula (a weirdly-boring-but-still-kind-of-alright-but-also-kind-of-bad adaptation), I’m excited to see how Penny Dreadful does it.

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