Like bad pennies always turning up, idioms are totally the most pervasive things, possibly, ever. Here’s one that frustrates me: it does what it says on the tin. I dislike this idiom because it probably reminds me of that Monty Python sketch in which I learned “tinny” words were bad, but more importantly because when used in reference to fictional narratives, it feels silly. Saying a whodunit is a whodunit or a rom-com is a rom-com is no defense (nor praise) of writing, storytelling, or creation of pop art. And yet, here is Penny Dreadful, showing up on cable and doing exactly what it says on the tin: being dreadful and doing it cheaply.
(Light spoilers for Penny Dreadful’s “Night Work”)
If something is “dreadful,” it generally means it induces a feeling of dread, is lousy with dread, or is a terrible indigestible piece of crap. Depending on what second of Penny Dreadful’s first episode you’re watching, each definition becomes applicable throughout. Sometimes the atmospheric dread of the show actually induces “dread” in a fun oh-I-got-scared-and-fell-off-my-couch sort of way. But other times you’re just sort of groaning and wishing you had a monocle on so you could declare “dreadful, just dreadful!” with more self-assurance. This isn’t exactly bad television, but so far, it certainly isn’t all that new either.
The opening episode’s plot centers on the forming of a team of Victorian badasses who all have some stake (pun definitely intended) in dealing with supernatural and/or gory happenings going on in 1891 London. Timothy Dalton plays Sir Malcolm, a cold incisive man who speaks only in metaphors, idioms, and analogies and has a spear hidden in his cane. He’s friends with Eva Green’s character—Vanessa Ives—who is Tarot card reader with a Sherlock Holmes-ability to size people up quickly. She also seems to have a love/hate relationship with creepy bugs. Together, these two recruit an American gun slinging showman named Chandler (Josh Harnett) and a perfectly reasonable young scientist named Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadway). If you didn’t know from previews or plot synopsis before, now you do: Penny Dreadful is a super team-up monster mash starring not only characters and themes from classic gothic Victorian speculative fiction and horror, but also incorporating all sorts of crummy TV and movie clichés, too.
Is it entertaining? Yes? Was I genuinely scared? You bet! And yet, not one thing, said or done by any of the characters felt earned in any kind of satisfying way. True, we’re living in the age of “pay-off” serial television, in which each installment of a “story” is supposed to whet our appetite for the next episode, but I’m not sure enough was established here to do that. Well, at least not much that was original. The cliffhanger (which we’ll get to in a second) wasn’t really contingent on anything that happened with the other characters, and truly could have existed inside of another show entirely, owing primarily to the fact that it’s just part of a really famous novel. As it stands, the characters we’re given here are a set of thinly drawn clichés, each a kind of puzzle, that I guess, we’re supposed to want to solve.
When novels were serialized—the original Penny Dreadfuls and their more respectable, sometimes Dickensian cousins—they held fast to the goal keep us coming back for more. And depending on what you were into, this could mean reoccurring characters, a great and compelling plot, or cheap thrills. The real Penny Dreadfuls favored the latter, and gave us a lot of memorable stuff, including the first appearance of Sweeney Todd. Notably, the Victorian novels being referenced and homaged in Penny Dreadful were not, themselves, actually Penny Dreadfuls, but, instead were considered of a higher ilk. Frankenstein was not turned into a genre the way we would attempt to classify it now, whereas the horrors found in the real Penny Dreadfuls were understood to be a genre based solely on their price. In other words: you had to work a little harder to read a better story, or save up a little more.
Not surprisingly, we have a similar hierarchies in television today. If you want the “good” TV shows, you’ve got to watch cable. But check it out: “serious” cable television rewards us for our hard work (or money) by giving us exactly what the cheaper mediums gave during the era of the Penny Dreadfuls: the smut. If you want spurting blood, dismembered bodies, and Josh Harnett being a cad, then this is the show for you. Unfortunately, the things I liked about Penny Dreadful had little or nothing to do with plot or characters. It’s all in the thrills.
And yet, I feel like writer/creator John Logan is trying to split the difference here, and I honestly hope he’ll be successful. Because in the final scenes of this first episode, we’re introduced to Frankenstein’s “creature,” who in this incarnation is just a naked dude sitting in a bucket of ice with some electrical wires attached to him. We also—because it’s Showtime—see the penis of Frankenstein’s monster, which, to me, was really, really jarring. If Penny Dreadful had any one big message in its first outing, it was this: this TV show is going to give you full-frontal monster. And that alone already gives this version of Frankenstein’s monster and his creator way more individuality and nuance than in most on-screen portrayals.
In this way, Penny Dreadful might end up being more than the sum of its stitched together patchwork parts. If lightning struck once to illuminate all these cool stories to begin with, then maybe it can strike again. Only this time, the corpses being brought back from the dead are bad television dialogue, and the lightning is a bunch of great novels from the past. All of which have always been worth more than a penny.
Penny Dreadful is doing what it says on the tin. And right now, there’s a dim hope (but a hope) that this high/low concept show can become more than the sum of its sort of misleading—and somehow perfect—idiomatic title.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.