Brow Beat

Why I Can’t Stay Away From Penny Dreadful

Josh Hartnett and Eva Green in Penny Dreadful 


Even if you didn’t like the first season of Penny Dreadful—John Logan’s mannered, spooky, glossy-trashy mash-up of Victorian horror-story characters—there is one scene that surely stuck with you. You know the one: It was in the second episode, when Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) and Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) are attending a séance led by a spiritual medium, Madame Kali. What begins as an apparent performance, a diversion for well-heeled Londoners hoping for a safe and brief dance with the occult, quickly turns frighteningly surreal: Suddenly channeling the doomed children of Sir Malcolm, Vanessa convulses, speaking in death rattles and strange tongues, shattering a mirrored table, poltergeisting a door shut. She is a dying boy, eyes wide and mournful like the moon; and then she is a corrupted young woman, venomously detailing her father’s misdeeds; and finally she is writhing and shrieking and levitating and fleeing the room. The demands of the scene would defeat most actors in the first minute. Green sustains it for seven.

In its second season, which premieres Sunday on Showtime, Penny Dreadful delivers more speaking-in-tongues, more communing-with-other-realms, and a whole lot of Eva Green performing at her moody, creepy-crawly best. Having defeated a Dracula-like creature at the end of last season, Malcolm and Vanessa begin to look inward, he toward his purpose now that he’s killed his bloodsucking enemy, her toward the demon that apparently retains its possession of her. (If she went through with the exorcism she flirted with at the end of last year, it didn’t stick.) Their compatriots, too, have reasons for introspection. The American sharpshooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), revealed last season to be a werewolf, wonders why he blacks out and awakes to carnage. Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) has been tasked by his articulate, murderous monster (the stirring Rory Kinnear) with resurrecting a bride. And Dorian Gray (the captivating Reeve Carney), lovesick from his now-cold affair with Vanessa, finally seems poised to enter the main plot, after circling it last year through a series of orgies, dalliances, and bacchanals.

If your dance card includes The Avengers (or even Mad Men), then Sir Malcolm’s menagerie of super-Victorians (which also includes Danny Sapani’s Sembene, his African confidant who’s handy with a blade) won’t be the only squad of the righteous, talented, and deeply damaged you will witness assemble this weekend. By pairing werewolf with mad scientist with immortal, Penny Dreadful puts on a horror-genre twist on a familiar impulse: to throw together familiar characters, be they superheroes or office archetypes, and see what happens. At the very least, it guarantees a curious audience. (Closest in spirit to Penny Dreadful is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, an excellent comic series and later a dreadful movie that brought together characters like Dr. Jekyll, Captain Nemo, and the Invisible Man. Not shockingly, Fox has ordered a pilot for a new series based on the comic book.)

Last season, Penny Dreadful paid off its conceptual promise by always being more surprising than gloomy. Its vision of London was debauched and a little queer. Its monsters had literary affects and self-defeating tics. And it felt no rush to reach its inevitable, vampire-strewn finale, sometimes dovetailing from the narrative for episodes at a time, which was particularly gratifying as it telescoped backward in time, tracing the agonies of Vanessa’s demonic possession. This time the plot is a little more grounded, at least in the two episodes shared with critics, and the characters a tad more morose. And it has a villain—a familiar and surprising one, who speaks the devil’s language, bathes in blood, and is already halfway toward seducing Sir Malcolm—who is truly worth fearing.

With its swelling score, its swooshing camera movements, and its nods toward melodrama, Penny Dreadful can feel overbearing in its gothy mood. Its characters, too, often appear to be brooding deeply about nothing at all, which is only slightly less grating than when they quote Wordsworth and Blake, because that is what characters in prestige period dramas—especially one in which Frankenstein’s monster adapts the name of a Shakespearean villain in one season and the name of an English poet the next—must do. There are times when I wish Penny Dreadful were baser, lower-brow, and more exploitative than it is apparently willing to be.

And yet I can’t quite dismiss it, thanks to winning, carefully modulated performances by Billie Piper—as a woman who fears the man whom she was brought back to life to wed—and Helen McCrory, whose full-bodied incantations are even scarier than Vanessa’s. And Logan frequently punctures the show’s dreary London fog with moments of levity, like the wax-museum owner whose new idea is to re-create the scenes of infamous murders, as well as a foppish academic who tells Ethan, “the British Museum holds the world’s greatest collection of historical pornography—besides the Vatican of course. People are always sneaking in for a look.” Penny Dreadful, to its credit, retains a similar hold: Some of its pieces are collecting dust. And still I keep returning for a final glance.