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Much to Admire in 'Penny Dreadful'
May 17, 2015  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

When I first learned of a Stanford University project to draw a literary “map of emotions” of 1890s Victorian London, at first I wanted to learn more. And then I thought of Penny Dreadful, and how it has affected and moved me in ways other Victorian dramas — Copper, Ripper Street and so on — barely scratch the surface.

Stanford’s data mining project asks what emotions lie behind London’s literary landmarks  (Fear? Wonder? Elation?) and reveals them on a digital map of London, complete with the street names and numbers of some 160 literary locations, together with 4,000 excerpts from some 1,400 novels, by everyone from Dickens and Thackeray to Jane Austen and James Boswell.

The project, “Mapping Emotions in Victorian London,” has just been posted online at historypin.org.

Penny Dreadful, playwright John Logan’s stylish period drama that takes its name from cheap, sensationalized serial stories published in weekly installments that cost a penny and were all the rage in Dickensian London, is just two weeks into its second season (with episode three of the season scheduled to air May 17) — a season Showtime president David Nevins has described as make-or-break.

Despite solid reviews in the Newark Star-Ledger, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, New York Magazine and UncleBarky’s Ed Bark, of this very parish, Penny Dreadful has not — nor, in all fairness, is it likely to — attained the ratings heights or cultural cachet of Game of Thrones, its Sunday night HBO rival. Nevins has said Penny Dreadful had better prove itself — i.e. pull in more viewers — this season, or else.

And yet, for all its flaws — its grotesquerie, its penchant for Grand Guignol-style excesses, its wildly uneven episodes from week-to-week, and a metaphysical battle between good and evil that verges on opaque at times — Penny Dreadful, for me, is haunting, unforgettable drama, beautifully crafted, consummately acted and written with a genuine love for language and the way words trip off the tongue.

Penny Dreadful is not Shakespeare, but there are moments when watching it is akin to listening to fine and rare poetry, spoken by actors — Timothy Dalton, Rory Kinnear, Eva Green (below with Dalton), Alun Armstrong and too many others to name here — who clearly respect the craft and are determined to give it their all.

This show would not be the first promising drama to go off the rails if the second season fails to live up to the promise of its first. It’s rarely a good sign when network executives, even premium cable executives, start to impose themselves on creative artists.

There is so much to admire in Penny Dreadful, though, that it’s hard to imagine a second season straying too far from its origins. (Unlike movie critics, who review a completed work, TV critics are invariably asked to pass judgment on a work in progress, which can go any number of ways.)

Some things are a given. Penny Dreadful’s haunting music, composed by the Polish symphonic composer Abel Korzeniowski, who doesn’t “do TV” as a rule, is an indelible part of Penny Dreadful dramatic atmospherics: It’s a character in its own right.

As with all good TV, though, it comes down to the writing in the end.

Logan has said that whether he’s writing a gothic horror tale or a James Bond film, it’s all about interesting characterization, “and the colors that emerge through storytelling.”

Penny Dreadful’s Victorian setting echoes today — “They were on the cusp of a modern world,” Logan told reporters at a press conference last summer — but Penny Dreadful’s themes, the elemental question of what it is to be human and the eternal conflict between Darwinism and creationism, are universal. And timeless.

My favorite episode, “Closer Than Sisters,” (right, Eva Green and Olivia Llewellyn) from late in Penny Dreadful’s debut season, worked on innumerable levels, any one of which could have provided the basis for an entire novel. What starts out as a budding, heartfelt friendship between two adolescent girls evolves into a tale of infidelity, ambition, betrayal, dangerous obsession and, ultimately, a desperate quest for redemption.

It’s rare that an hour of episodic television quotes Keats (from Ode to a Nightingale) — “Darkling I listen; and, for many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death” — and rarer still that the lines between Keats verses sound as pure and sweet.

Penny Dreadful might not be the best show on television, but it is one of my favorites.

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Greg Kennedy
I truly enjoy Alex Strachan's voice and hope we can have more of his articles. His passion shines through along with his obviously well-researched information.
May 18, 2015   |  Reply
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