TV Club

Best TV shows 2014: Slate’s TV Club celebrates Penny Dreadful.

Entry 8: Penny Dreadful is smart, sexy, and complicated. More people should be watching it.

Penny Dreadful
Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray and Eva Green as Vanessa Ives on Penny Dreadful.

Photo courtesy Jonathan Hession/Showtime

Dear fellow sexaholics,

I’m going to blow all your minds, so to speak. The consensus seems to be that Outlander had the hottest sex scenes of the year—in part because, as you said, Willa, the acts were emotionally grounded, not just aesthetically rrrrawr-worthy. But another scenario that was way, way up there in the hottitude charts? Two dudes having sex on Showtime.

Did you expect me to say “two dudes having sex on HBO”? That would have been entirely appropriate, given that HBO’s Looking was one of the most romantic, sensitive, and steamy shows of the year. (Any show that casts Scott Bakula as what Emily Nussbaum called an “elderly cocksman” is doing things right.) It was a little weird that the sex scenes on Looking stopped where they did—apparently both the old gods and the new forbid HBO from showing a non-Hodor male appendage—but Looking, like You’re the Worst, The Americans, and Outlander, understood that the best kind of on-screen sex scenes tell stories about power dynamics, doubt, connection, and discovery. Chemistry so often comes from character, which was certainly the case on Penny Dreadful.

That last drama that didn’t get nearly enough buzz this year, in my humble opinion. (Not enough monologues about existential dread, perhaps?) Sure, it was easy to classify Penny Dreadful as Showtime’s decent entry in television’s Ye Olde Horror Sweepstakes, but as someone who’s not necessarily a fan of blood-drenched storytelling per se, I found that it evolved into a complex and charismatic revelation. You’re pretty much guaranteed a hothouse atmosphere when you combine obsessive Victorians with unresolved sexual tension and high-necked, confining garments that anyone in their right mind would be dying to rip off. Like Downton Abbey, it was a show in which carnal desires were made all the more potent through their near-constant suppression, but on Showtime, characters get to actually, you know, do it.

On Penny Dreadful, there were hot, furtive hookups here and there, in alleyways and garden sheds and even in bedrooms now and then. The show wasn’t shy about giving clichés a spin; one character was a prostitute with a heart of gold (not to mention the most inexplicable Irish accent since the Angelus flashbacks on Angel). But like Jane the Virgin, Penny Dreadful mix-mastered the tropes of its genre with such intelligent glee that it was pretty much irresistible. How could I not love a show that featured vampire hunters, Dorian Gray, and a werewolf?

Like the Victorians themselves, there was an undercurrent of lush sensuality running through the show, and midway through its first season, viewers were rewarded with one of the most electric moments of the year: Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and the show’s tough-dude American, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), strolled through Gray’s gilded parlor accompanied by sexual tension you could cut with a finely wrought knife. Finally, the men kissed, and it was super hawt (to use Official TV Critic Lingo).

One of the most interesting things about that scene is that neither character necessarily identifies as gay, not in the sense that we usually understand that sexual identity. Both men also had sex with women during the course of the first season, and their one-time fling wasn’t repeated (though a girl can hope). Even a few years ago, that unwillingness to label a character’s sexuality would likely have been a sign that a show was either lacking in courage or interested in peddling exploitative nonsense—à la the TV tradition of ladies who experiment with kissing girls right around important ratings-measurement periods.

But the creator of Penny Dreadful, John Logan, is a gay man who clearly has no interest in propagating TV’s lame, craven tendencies. The sexual fluidity of his characters reflects the Victorians’ own sense of discovery: They were obsessed with classifications and categories but didn’t necessarily feel bound by them. And the show doesn’t just allow the characters to experiment, it expects them to—one of its main characters, after all, is Victor Frankenstein. To me, this puts Penny Dreadful on a continuum with Transparent and even The Americans—these are shows in which no one’s identity is ever truly nailed down and the usual categories that people use as social and cultural shorthand don’t fully express the reality of the characters’ lives. What I loved about TV in 2014 is that, as James said, it reveled in the glorious messiness and complications of characters’ lives, in the bedroom and out of it.

That said, we’re not fully past the antihero era, as Salon critic Sonia Soraiya points out in one of her end-of-year pieces. Even so, as she notes, shows as varied as True Detective and Looking undertook the project of “dismantling masculinity” in fairly profound ways. That’s been the goal of Mad Men from the start, of course, but television in 2014 is far less dominated by tortured males than it was for much of the aughts. “It’s a scarier world, past the debauchery of anti-hero dramas, but it’s a saner one, too,” Soraiya writes.

Sane doesn’t mean neat, identifiable, or predictable, either, and that’s such a welcome change. Gender, identity, family structures, masculinity, what it means to be a competent woman, what it means to be loyal to your country, your family, your spouse, or yourself—all these ideas were under fantastic assault on screens this year. People are asking more questions about these ideas than ever—and a bracing array of people are getting to ask them. Beyond the shows that were on many of our year-end lists, there are enjoyable gems like Banshee, in which an Asian trans character is not just an ace hacker but a major-league ass kicker; Vikings, in which Lagertha escaped an abusive relationship to claim her autonomy and to take the reins of power in her clan; and Scandal, in which the exploration of a black father and daughter’s painful history was one of the most riveting things on TV.

Before we all run off skipping into the meadow to weave daisy chains—so ecstatic are we to be living in this televisual paradise—I’d be doing a disservice to the medium if I didn’t add to the discussion of the ways in which TV has stumbled or outright failed this year. Though Jim rightly points out how smart and ridiculously funny Silicon Valley could be, I was bummed out when the show went in some incredibly clichéd, male-gaze-y directions, especially in “Third Party Insourcing,” an episode that had all the bro-ish grossness of late-stage Entourage.

And just as Game of Thrones was getting over its sexposition addiction, it went and gave us one character raping another without the show realizing that that’s what had happened (for anyone who cares about dismantling rape culture, 2014 has been pretty depressing all in all). But for my money, the episode that aired a week after the infamous Jaime-Cersei scene was even more depressing, given that it featured multiple women being assaulted at Craster’s Keep, almost as an afterthought. I’m used to boobs as wallpaper, but rape as wallpaper? Nope. What galls me about the Craster’s Keep overkill is that it displayed a real lack of faith in the audience: What, we wouldn’t realize the Keep is a bad place, even as we watch a nasty brute monologuing about savage acts while drinking out of a skull?

Even worse were the rape clichés and women-in-peril plots on Tyrant, which wanted to be the most shocking drama of 1999 and even failed at that. I thought we’d moved on from such clunky character introductions. (“Hey, let’s make the bad guy seem really bad with a spot of rape!”) Far less terrible but still troubling were the damsel-in-distress stories on the adventure serial Sleepy Hollow, where the cast’s resident witch did not appear capable of hexing her way out of a paper bag. Willow would not approve.

It’s not that I think the shows that got major things wrong intended to be exploitative, insulting, or dumb; they just didn’t think things through, in the writers’ room, on the soundstage, or in the editing room, and it showed. On top of that, I don’t know if writers and producers with their heads down in the TV trenches realize how hungry audiences are for new dynamics and fresh thinking. In its first season, Sleepy Hollow was not just a crackling, bonkers action tale, it also casually put not one but two black families (the Mills and the Irvings) at the center of the narrative. The idea of mismatched detectives having adventures is not new; it’s one of TV’s oldest go-to premises. But the idea of a fun, populist show on a broadcast network putting black sisters at the forefront of the story certainly was new. In its second season, though, the show sidelined Jenny Mills and Frank Irving, and fans didn’t just feel let down, they understandably felt betrayed. Sleepy Hollow wasn’t going to be like all the other shows, until it was (though I continue to hope it will get its mojo back).

As television expands in every direction—and reinvents ideas about who gets to be the protagonists—it’s sad when a show with promise or potential constricts its vision. After all, the shows we can’t resist giving free publicity to are the ones where chances are taken and weirdos, shit-stirrers, and outliers are often center stage. Put in all the subversive text and subtext you want, TV people! Why can’t a show about Chicago lawyers actually be a sly investigation of the surveillance state? Why can’t a show on MTV be an empathic and wise exploration of a young lesbian’s coming of age? Why can’t a show about a racist doctor at the turn of the century have a thoughtful story to tell about being a black man in 1900 America? Why can’t a Viking be a feminist? A Viking dude at that?

What’s cool is that we’re going into 2015 not knowing anything about what kinds of people we’ll meet next. Will they be vampire aliens? Sexy accountants? Serial killers with enviable knife technique? Will these people have great sex or awkward hookups? Will there be more kilts? I honestly have no idea, and that’s the most exciting thing of all.

Scottishly yours,