TV review: Hollow monster fun abounds in Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful”

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From the May 8, 2014 edition

Showtime’s new drama “Penny Dreadful” is difficult to evaluate. First off, the term penny dreadful refers not to a character, but underground Victorian-era horror comics that featured all manner of monsters (vampires, werewolves, etc.). So that’s the motif behind the television series.

It’s the tale of a group of crusaders fighting against the evils of mythical darkness in Victorian London, mainly vampires with a connection to the devil (but I’m sure other sorts of creatures that go bump in the night are coming). The core of the crusaders includes the mysterious medium Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), renowned explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett). Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) come into the fold as well.

As you can tell, “Penny Dreadful” is basically a “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” super-friends team-up thing (which apparently also happened in the Victorian-era comics). Once you realize the history behind the premise, this all seems a bit less ridiculous and disorienting. Only a bit, though.

Created by John Logan (writer of “Skyfall” and “The Aviator”), “Penny Dreadful” is better than it has any right to be. It’s entertaining, in a silly sort of way. But the pilot (already available online) is fairly rote, serving as a choppy introduction to everything. It doesn’t help that the OK cast doesn’t have a lot to work with so far, although Green and Hartnett are pretty good at shading their characters.

The main thing “Penny Dreadful” has going for it is that it looks pretty effing cool. The Victorian setting and costumes are well done, and the monsters, murders, blood and such are wicked.

The biggest flaw, after watching two episodes, is that I’m not quite sure where the narrative is headed. There’s the central mystery of finding someone important to Sir Malcolm and Vanessa, but other characters feel a bit disconnected.

If this all dovetails together, “Penny Dreadful” could be solid, if still kind of absurd. If you go in looking for only some hollow monster fun, you’ll be pleased. If you’re looking for profound acting and storytelling, disappointment is assured.

Photo courtesy Showtime