Oscar Wilde was wrong — there is such a thing as being talked about too much. Hasn’t the Victorian Age been picked completely clean by now? As an antique source of TV shows, movies, sci-fi and romance pitches, it’s become an endless parade of gentleman detectives, serial killers, spirit-interpreting mediums, dandy vampires and psychologically disordered scientists.
There are so many devils lurking among that particular sliver of British history’s primness and propriety, looking for innocence to plunder. This overdose of steampunk has fogged up the Looking Glass (or the TV screen in this case); sometimes it seems like half the new cable shows that arrive on my desk come inside of press kits made to look like a leather-bound tome off of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s bookshelves. There’s murder and then there’s overkill.
The concept for Showtime’s handsome but scattershot new Sunday night drama “Penny Dreadful,” created by British playwright and screenwriter John Logan, sounds like more of the same: Set in London in 1891, it’s about a pair of highly unconventional sleuths, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), who convince a traveling Wild West sharpshooter named Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) to join their hunt for vampires.
And its not just vampires, either.
The title “Penny Dreadful” refers to a wide genre of pulp magazines from back then, which were filled with cheap yet enticingly illustrated tales of unlawful acts and paranormal occurrences. Within those pages, such legends as Sweeney Todd (the demon barber of Fleet Street) and Varney the Vampire loomed large. And in context, the stories capitalized on actual fears of violent crime, while feeding a fascination for unexplained hauntings, monsters, etc.
“Penny Dreadful” is all about that vibe — set in a London that is always foggy and perpetually reprobate, a city filled with gruesomely murdered prostitutes and social gatherings dominated by seances. In just two episodes, we’re dealing with bloodsuckers, Jack the Ripper-like crime scenes, Frankenstein’s monster and Dorian Gray’s vanity.
These sorts of mash-ups happen frequently to Victorian literary legends; much of the initial feeling conjured up by “Penny Dreadful” is reminiscent of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s inventive 1999 comic book series “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” which similarly commingled characters from popular Victorian lore (and was turned into a terrible 2003 movie starring Sean Connery).
After Sir Malcolm, Vanessa and Ethan kill a basement-dwelling vampire, viewers will soon realize that the forensic scientist who performs an autopsy for them is none other than Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), who peels back the alabaster skin of the vampire to discover the beast is covered in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Although Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus” was first published in 1818 and isn’t, therefore, technically of the period, the best parts of “Penny Dreadful’s” debut involve Dr. Frankenstein’s relationship to the newly revivified creature he’s made up in his private lab.
By then, Sir Malcolm and Vanessa are at a seance at a high society party and Ethan is befriending a pretty Irish immigrant (Billie Piper) who is coughing up blood from consumption. In both pace and tone, Logan intends for “Penny Dreadful” to be somewhat like those weekly magazines of yore — rich in detail and frights, with a story that sprawls outward with each chapter.
Today’s closest kin to a penny dreadful might already be found on our favorite complicated, violent dramas on cable TV on any given Sunday night. In which case, “Penny Dreadful” shouldn’t be struggling as hard it is does to announce itself and locate its momentum. A viewer assumes that the stories — including the addition of Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) — will somehow congeal and that “Penny Dreadful” will begin to make some coherent sense.
The better news for now is the acting. In addition to Treadaway’s thoughtful take on Dr. Frankenstein, both Dalton and Green are engaging as the lead characters. And it’s nice to have an answer at last to the question Whatever Happened to Josh Hartnett? — the Hollywood it-hunk of a decade ago. (He does fine here, so far.)
There’s a meticulousness to the clammy mood and appearance of “Penny Dreadful,” but from its first few scenes, it does a rather dreadful job of letting the viewer know what kind of series it hopes to be. Even a creep show with the savvy clarity of Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” found out the hard way that a TV series cannot exist on art direction alone.
Is “Penny Dreadful’s” interpersonal drama more important than the episodic “Groovie Goolies”-like parade of spooky characters and literary references? What are we supposed to focus on here? That Sir Malcolm hunts vampires because he believes he can save someone he loves from the eternal fate of the undead? That (Apparently clairvoyant? Possibly possessed?) Vanessa has a secret reason for helping him? It’s rare to see a show get its style so right and its story so backwards.
(one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.