[This is a review of the Penny Dreadful premiere episode. There will be SPOILERS.]
While waiting for the next round of American Horror Story, many hoped that Penny Dreadful would fill that void by flooding the small screen with terror and gore. And while the series premiere of the John Logan-created, Sam Mendes-produced series does do that to a degree, it’s not in the manner one might expect.
And that’ll likely be the case no matter what draws you to this new series. Whether you’re in it for the horror, the supernatural Victorian spin or perhaps just Eva Green, you’ll get what you want, but perhaps while embracing other qualities you didn’t realize you needed.
There’s an abundance of highly successful components to go around, but for those eager to see Green, you’re the biggest winners because she absolutely steals ‘Night Work.’ Vanessa Ives isn’t “normal” in the least – her ability to conjure spiders in her introductory scene proves it – but even with her out-of-this-world abilities, somewhat detached temperament and mysterious quality, Green still manages to emit just the slightest degree of heart and warmth to make her a strong anchor for the show. However, it seems likely that that duty was intended for Josh Hartnett’s Ethan Chandler.
Ethan’s an actor. He travels around with Colonel Brewster’s Wild West Show gunslinging to give the audience a quick thrill, but Vanessa has other plans for his talent; she wants Ethan to join her and legendary explorer, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), on their mission to rescue Sir Malcolm’s daughter (Mina Harker, of Dracula fame). Ethan’s the outsider getting his first glimpse in and that makes him the key to introducing viewers to this world, but when it come to what you take away from it, it’s Green who makes the lasting impression, not Hartnett.
Harry Treadaway doesn’t get all that much screen time in episode 1, but he certainly makes good use of every single bit of it. Whereas one should be focused on the body parts Dr. Victor Frankenstein is busy dissecting, Treadaway’s intense dedication to the character’s principles and quirks turns Frankenstein into a multidimensional main player in minutes, and that allows the viewer to feel the weight of his mid-scene discoveries.
Treadaway also shines during a particularly powerful back and forth with Dalton during which he delivers a hypnotic speech regarding the ultimate goal of his work, but his most impressive achievement in episode 1 is the finale.
We’ve seen Frankenstein’s monster come to life time and time again. The success of this scene is almost entirely dependent on Treadaway’s performance – and he pulls it off stunningly.
Even though we’ve got zero information on Treadaway’s version of Dr. Frankenstein prior to the events of this episode, it’s impossible not to both understand and feel what this feat means to him through merely his unadorned yet wildly expressive reaction shots. No matter how you’re feeling about Penny Dreadful up to that point, Treadaway declaring, “My name is Victor Frankenstein,” and then the screen cutting to black is moving enough to leave most people eager for more.
And that’s what ultimately makes this premiere episode a winner. The performances are fantastic, the visuals are striking and the carnage and creature work is particularly well done, but Penny Dreadful doesn’t conjure that must-see feeling until the end of the episode.
Perhaps that’s really all that matters for the first episode of a new series because I do genuinely want to keep watching, but a little more momentum and energy during certain portions of ‘Night Work’ couldn’t have hurt. Right now, I’m in, and between the rich setting, curious mythology and enchanting characters, Penny Dreadful seems to have all the potential in the world.
Penny Dreadful continues next Sunday with ‘Séance’ at @10pm on Showtime.
Follow Perri on Twitter @PNemiroff.