In a year full of wonderful new shows, "Penny Dreadful" was one of the most pleasant surprises.
Perhaps "pleasant" isn't the right word: "Arresting," "energetic," "intense" and "heartbreaking" might be better descriptors of the Showtime drama, which arrived on DVD and other platforms Oct. 14.
Wait, "heartbreaking"? Absolutely. Creator John Logan clearly loves both the Victorian era and the conventions of the horror genre, and "Penny Dreadful," which wrapped up an engrossing and entertaining eight-episode run in June, briskly merged those elements and yet arrived at something refreshingly original. The show borrowed explicitly from "The Picture of Dorian Gray," "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" (and several characters bear the names of individuals in those books), but the show pulled off the neat trick of never coming off as a derivative pastiche. "Penny Dreadful," unlike much of television's horror-tinged fare, was often borne aloft by the kind of brisk, wide-eyed energy that you'd find in a turn-of-the-century adventure serial.
And yet, when monsters weren't being pursued on London's cobblestoned streets, the show revealed a deeper agenda entirely, one that was revealed in stealthy and purposeful stages.
"Penny Dreadful" pulled people in with gore and surprises, high adventure and creeping beasties, and the centerpiece of the showy second episode was a mesmerizing set piece that displayed Eva Green's mercurial charisma to full advantage. But subsequent episodes revealed that "Penny Dreadful" was ultimately most interested in the monsters that lurk inside people's hearts. Starched collars and horse-drawn carriages aside aside, the Showtime drama proved it was as interested in questions of identity and as obsessed with the fragility of human connections as "Transparent" or "Rectify."
It's about "the pull between what you want, and the danger of having it," as Logan said in an interview conducted last July at San Diego Comic-Con.
Logan, who started out as a Chicago playwright and is now best known as the writer of films like "Hugo," "Skyfall" and "Gladiator," said there no chance he'd have set his first TV series in the modern day.
"My keyboard is a time machine and a portal into somewhere fantastical," Logan said. "I'm not so interested in going to the CVS and finding thrilling stories there. I'm in awe of writers who can do that, but that's not my metier. From my first plays all the way until now, I've always been drawn to different worlds, whether it's future worlds, past worlds or alternate worlds, partly because there's such a joy in exploring them."
Even if you're not particularly drawn to horror, it's impossible to look away from the macabre and the fantastical world of "Penny Dreadful," because the humane and compassionate themes of the show are ultimately so winning. Like another showtime program, "Masters of Sex," "Penny Dreadful" is only interested in sexuality, fear and darkness insofar as it illuminates sincere questions about the potential (good and bad) of human nature.
I can only applaud clever subterfuge of "Penny Dreadful": It billed itself as a horror-infused period piece, when its ultimate goal was to create a psychologically dense character study about a band of outsiders who sometimes find solace in each other. As the rush of new fall programs starts to lull (and the realization sinks in that many new shows are pretty tedious), it's worth your while to seek out this drama. If nothing else, it features some surprisingly great performances.
Every member of the show's cast nimbly manages to traverse the show's shifts between melodrama and scenes of quiet subtlety and melancholy, but it must be said, Eva Green was simply phenomenal in the lead role of Vanessa Ives. Asked to exhibit everything from cagey repression to carnal ferocity to wrung-out, hollow-eyed desperation, Green brought her A game and then some.
As the other two members of the central trio, Josh Hartnett and Timothy Dalton brought gravitas and depth to their roles, and I'm truly excited to see more from both when the show returns. I expected excellent work from Dalton as Victorian explorer Sir Malcolm Murray, and viewers certainly got that, but I was less familiar with Hartnett's work. Toward the end of Season 1, however, he more than held his own with his co-stars and brought wonderful pathos and shading to the role of knockabout adventurer Ethan Chandler.
With any luck, by the time Season 2 rolls around, people will have caught up with "Penny Dreadful" and learned that it is, like so many meaty genre shows, about an ad hoc family coming together to battle the evil that lurks -- both inside and outside the family.
"I know we turn people off with the provocation of the show, with the language of the show, with the period of the show," Logan said. "But I hope that people give the show a chance and get engaged with the characters in such a way that any preconceived notions they have about horror will become less important."
Logan spoke about why he thinks horror is having a resurgence, why the Victorians are more modern than you might think and what's ahead for Season 2. Be aware that some Season 1 plot points are mentioned.
Your show is in the horror genre, which isn't even my home genre -- I'm much more of a sci-fi geek. But I wouldn't really want to limit "Penny Dreadful" by saying that horror is all that it is. It seems like it's much more about the moral and emotional exploration of these characters than anything else. It ultimately seems interested in the characters' interiors. Was that always your goal?
Always. As my first series, I knew this was going to be a life-changing commitment, especially if it hit and it went [beyond one season]. I spent 10 years thinking about it and just turning it over and over. Even though I am a horror geek -- I was the kid who made the models and read the comic books and watched the movies -- I've never really done horror. Not really, not in great, micro detail.
What drew me at this point in my life as a writer was the complexity of the characters and the way that horror -- and science fiction and Westerns and noir -- allows the characters to manifest their angels and their demons in a very literal way. In horror and sci-fi, these things can be physically manifested as well. That seemed to be a really exciting way to play with the central duality of what it is to be man, what it is to be a monster, what it is to be woman -- all of those tensive poles within all of us.
If I were to do a college paper on "Penny Dreadful," I would take this as my thesis: It's about the danger of resisting your true self and your true impulses, and the danger of not resisting your true self and your true impulses.
It's the core conundrum in life -- you can't resist who you truly are, but at times, you have to resist what you want. That constant tension underlies the whole show.
Yes. To be a member of any social organism, whether it's the body politic, a family, a congregation -- to be the member of a community, it requires that you trim your sails. It requires that you interact with other people. It requires that your molecules don't refract off of them in such a way that's dissonant or harmful.
On the other hand, we all have a demon. We all have desires, whether they're sexual, psychological, mercenary -- whatever they are. We have the desire to express ourselves in a really extreme way. So that rub is one of the things the show is about, I hope.
Can you talk about how making the first season reframed or reshaped your ideas about Season 2? If nothing else, you now know what your cast is capable of, which is anything.
They are a brilliant cast and they inspire me on a daily basis. The second season, in a way, was easier to write, in that I knew the actors' voices. Or, I should say, I knew the character's voices. And in a way, it was more challenging to write, because I realized these actors are capable of anything. They are fearless. So the limits I placed on myself in the first season, I took off in the second season. Because I know Eva Green will happily go there, and Josh will go there, and Tim will go there, and go there enthusiastically because they trust me and they trust in the central -- and this is important -- morality of our tale.
Because, you know, "Penny Dreadful" is not pornographic. It is not nihilistic. It is not cynical. It is oddly, for such a dark show, incredibly warm-hearted. It wears its heart on its sleeve and says, "Here's who we are. We are all fragile, vulnerable creatures. And although we may be monsters, we maybe lethal in our capabilities, we are so delicate."
And we are also capable of such generosity as well. I keep thinking about the seventh episode of the season. This is probably too much information, but my father died last fall, and that was what it was like -- to be at the bedside of a sick person. There are so many different moments --- moments of levity, of black humor, sadness. So here was this Victorian horror story that could have seemed foreign, but it was the most real thing I've seen about being in that situation. It got at a truth.
Well, my father died two years ago, and it seems like we had a similar response to the episode -- you in watching it and me in creating it. I find that episode very moving, in its exultation and its desolation. David Nevins, in our long years of talking about the show before it even began, once said, "All shows are about families." I translated that to bridge of the Enterprise [on "Star Trek"], because that's what I grew up with. It translates to so many things.
So the first season is about a family coming together. They needed a crisis point. And then I experienced my father's death with my family, which is spread all over the globe and spread all over emotionally. For six months, we came together in a sickroom and finally hospice care at his home. The experiences were so profound that, being a writer, I had to process them through writing. And that became Episode 7.
When you say you've taken the limits off the show for Season 2, what do you mean by that?
I think I feel the freedom to explore the sacred texts a little more -- those texts being "Dracula," "Frankenstein" and "The Picture of Dorian Gray." Now that I've brought this family together, I can pull at them in different directions. I can set characters in opposition in ways they haven't been yet. I can bring characters who haven't met together and sort of play the game more complexly. To me, the first season was about putting the pieces on the board. Now I get to play with them.
And you'll be adding characters or expanding them in Season 2.
Yes. I figured out the cosmology of the show for three years. I always envisioned the first season as being about the hunt for Mina and the chief antagonists would be vampires. In the second season, I wanted a human -- an almost human, or perhaps human -- antagonist, and that was going to be Madame Kali, whom we met in the second episode of Season 1.
I only wanted Helen McGrory to play her. I've worked with her twice before. She's a brilliant actress and I knew what I wanted this character to do in the second season. So thankfully, she signed up for the two episodes in the first season, and then she's a series regular in Season 2, as an antagonist. Simon Russell Beale comes back as well, and I think he's in eight of the 10 episodes. He's the Egyptologist and he weaves into the plot a lot. And there are a couple more [new characters] as well. New villains, new challenges, new adventures to come.
Will the characters leave London much?
Timothy's character has that whole history as an explorer. I mean, you can't really re-create that as a flashback given that you're shooting in Ireland, but will we learn more about that?
I'm going to give you the vague answer.
I definitely love vague answers.
[Laughs] That answer is, I hope to explore the backgrounds and the pasts of all the characters in different ways.
You were very clever in how you structured the season, in that there was literally a lot of red meat for the horror fans early on, and by the time you got people hooked, later in the season, it was this emotional, romantic, bittersweet story full of sadness.
I kept telling my mother, "Believe me, the first two episodes are the goriest." There is gore all the way along, but you touch on something important. When I talk to the composer or designers or new directors about the show, I say the key note is "poignance." The key note is "cello." It's loneliness and sadness. Within that, there's great joy, there's humor, there's adventure, there's action, there's mystery. But it's about being in the act of wanting or of searching.
Yearning. It's such an active verb for me as a writer. I constantly go back to that place. I told Harry Treadaway [who plays Dr. Frankenstein] today, "Yeah, you don't really have any happy scenes in the second season. But who does?" It's called "Penny Dreadful," not "Penny Jolly."
The central trio that you introduced in Season 1, is that where you see most of the key dynamics taking place?
I always start with Vanessa Ives, because that's where I started the series. The first idea was envisioning that character and that actress. So that's where I always start. And then beyond that, I truly believe it is an ensemble show. Next season, characters will emerge that weren't prominent in the first season. But you know, my "bridge of the Enterprise" is that house [in London occupied by Ives and Murray].
The show has done such a good job of making the world feel very rich and vital. I mean, just the clothing alone -- Victorian clothing is so detailed and thick and textured, and also so constrained. It's as if they're covering up because too much vitality is trying get out.
That's exactly right. Matthew Sweet wrote this great book called "Inventing the Victorians," which has nothing to do with "Penny Dreadful," but in the years of working on this, I read everything I could of Victoriana, London, England, the Raj, the empire, explorers and spiritualists. And then I came across "Inventing the Victorians," and his central thesis is that the Victorians are so much more like us than we like to admit. We like to look back at them and say, "Oh, they were corseted, they were prudish." Nothing could be further from the truth. They had a great appreciation of color, of sexuality.
And just on sexuality, 1891, which is when our first season was set -- it's before Freud. It's before there were classifications like "homosexual." The word did not exist. So people didn't classify themselves. There was a great deal more exploration of sexuality. Billie Piper and I were talking about her character, Brona, and she asked, "Is she a prostitute?" "Well, yes and no. You exchange goods for services but not in the way we would define prostitution." The sexual landscape of Victorian England was much more open and much more fluid than it would be now.
There is so much muscularity in the Victorians, in terms of their poetry and prose. If you read Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Browning, Tennyson, there is such exuberance. And yet they were living in a time in which women were literally and figuratively corseted, where everyone was dressed up to the neck in ties and everyone wore hats and gloves. One of the most shocking events in Season 1 was in Episode 2, when Vanessa Ives goes to a party without wearing gloves. That's a provocation to the people around her.
I remember reading a biography of Florence Nightingale and I was exhausted by everything she was doing. The Victorians wrote so many letters, they wrote so many books, they went on these arduous trips that would absolutely kill me.
They were exuberant about life. They had a swagger and a confidence that mirrored American swagger and confidence. You look back on the British Empire and you see how it fell away. You see how they lost confidence and they became a different people when the Empire died. One can't help but think that we are somewhat in the same situation in America, in terms of what we're going through and where it might lead us eventually. Maybe one of the reasons we're having a renaissance in horror now, at least on television and movies, is one of the reasons they had a renaissance in horror in the Victorian era in their [most popular] form, which was literature. It's anxiety. The key to me, in horror, is anxiety. What were they nervous about and what are we nervous about? What are the things artists choose to manifest through horror?
One of my favorite Victorian authors is Wilkie Collins, and a lot of his stories were about women who were unruly, who were unusual. They created anxiety everywhere they went.
Yes! I love Wilkie Collins. I purposely wanted a female protagonist -- that was the important thing, that my hero was going to be a woman, and a complicated woman. And she wasn't going to be my hero by masculinizing her, by giving her a gun. She was going to be a woman, and a woman in her era, yet be the hero of this piece. She's the strong guiding light around which all the moths gather.
Next season I get to introduce more characters and bring more characters into her world. That was essential to me from the beginning. I thought that was the best way to manifest what we talked about earlier -- the pull between what you want, and the danger of having it.
The first season of "Penny Dreadful" is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray, iTunes and several other platforms, as well as Showtime Anywhere and Showtime On Demand.