Penny Dreadful: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Roughly)

Please Note: The following contains spoilers for much of the first season of Penny Dreadful, because I just don’t care.

Every so often, I start to feel vaguely and irrationally guilty about my inability to stay on top of all the TV shows that sound promising. Guilt quickly progresses to something like anxiety, and I feel an absurd but pressing need to play catch-up right away. So I really ought to have known better than to follow a link to an article entitled “The 17 Best New Shows of 2014”—the only thing that could come of that was stress.

I also should probably know better than to take life advice from Buzzfeed. But since I apparently don’t, I have to admit that I was intrigued by their synopsis of Penny Dreadful, which they describe as “an existential thriller that is far more cerebral than it appears from the outside, posing philosophical questions about the nature of life and death, transgression and absolution, power and responsibility.” I guess I was still riding the high of finally discovering why everyone raves about Sarah Waters, because I was all set for Penny Dreadful to be a truly ingenious riff on classic Victorian literature.

For the most part, I’ve been disappointed. The show does address the issues Buzzfeed highlights, but it does so in a way that feels more slapdash and faux-intellectual than truly “cerebral.” As of this moment, I’ve watched five and a half of the eight episodes that have aired, and I’m sort of at a loss as to why I’ve stuck with it. Yes, there are a few storylines that I’m languidly interested in following, but there’s a lot about Penny Dreadful that I find either actively annoying (e.g. the show’s tendency to uncritically absorb the prejudices of its source material) or simply hollow (e.g. much of the show’s philosophical posturing). I have a bad feeling that a large part of my compulsive fascination is solely a matter of spectacle, since it’s certainly a visually striking show, if nothing else. I’m probably also holding onto the hope that things will improve. But since I have been forced to admit to myself that I am unlikely to stop watching Penny Dreadful in the near future, here is a rundown of what I like (and don’t like) about the show:

Things I Love (Okay, Like):

Ethan Chandler: It’s pretty shocking that Ethan Chandler is the roundest character on the show, given how unpromising his introduction is. Truth be told, he strongly reminded me of Quincey Morris from Dracula, and I feared that the writers of Penny Dreadful were laboring under the same delusion that seemed to afflict Bram Stoker—namely, that all 19th-century Americans were cowboys (or, at least, cowboy impersonators in a Wild West show). So I was truly surprised to discover that of all the characters in Penny Dreadful, Ethan is by far the most interesting. It’s not just that he has a secret nice side; that’s more or less a given for that kind of rough-and-tumble character. It’s that there’s something truly tender (dare I say “stereotypically feminine”?) about the way he takes care of his ailing sweetheart Brona. I’m biased, given what I studied in grad school, but I find that blurring of gender roles intriguing. And on the subject of gender and sexuality, kudos to the writers for making Ethan bisexual (or, at least, something other than strictly heterosexual). In a way, it’s a much more subversive move than simply making him gay; the “manly man who’s secretly attracted to other men” is becoming a stock figure even in mainstream media. But writing Ethan as clearly in love with Brona but entirely willing to fool around with Dorian while they’re on the outs? That’s different. (Also, I never knew that Josh Hartnett could be attractive until I saw him in a waistcoat with messy, 1800s cowboy hair, not that that influences my critical opinion or anything.)

Things About Which I Am Ambivalent:

Vanessa Ives: I actually expected to like this character, since I’ve been a fan of Eva Green since seeing her in the (admittedly flawed) 2009 adaptation of Sheila Kohler’s novel Cracks. However, Vanessa Ives is a prime example of Penny Dreadful’s efforts to seem more profound than it actually is. I’m sure I’m supposed to find her complex and engaging because she has a Dark and Troubled Past, loves her friend Mina but betrays her, and (maybe) enjoys sex (more on that in a moment). Honestly, though, Vanessa only seems to have three settings—seductive, mysterious, and tormented—and that does not a realistic character make. Besides, since I’m at least nominally Catholic, I’m vaguely irritated that the writers treat Vanessa’s Catholicism as one more way in which she is mystical and mysterious (though that is a minor sin held up against some of the show’s other forays into romanticization—but, again, more on that later). Still, I do find Eva Green a compelling actress who’s doing a lot with the material she’s been given, so I can’t totally write Vanessa off yet.

The Frankenstein Story: My feelings about this are conflicted. On the one hand, the show initially seemed to be going somewhere quite different and unique with the source material; the way in which Proteus is introduced leads the viewer to believe that the relationship between Victor Frankenstein and his creature will be something other than the anguished and antagonistic one we all know from the novel. This alternate storyline goes down in flames (well, blood) with the introduction of Caliban, Frankenstein’s first creation, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t regret the lost opportunity just a bit. That said, the original Frankenstein is an excellent story any way you slice it, and the show has actually managed to nail its pathos pretty accurately. Plus, this storyline has been one of the few sources of genuinely insightful philosophizing. The decision to give Caliban a job at a theater company was clever and unexpected, and it provides the fodder for some truly thoughtful speculations on the nature of art—chief among them, perhaps, the unusually nuanced speech that the acting troupe’s leader gives on the transformative (and even redemptive) possibilities of performance. So not bad, all and all, if not quite what I was hoping for initially.

Things I Do Not Love:

Vampires: I know. They’re taking their inspiration from Dracula—the novel responsible for at least 90% of our current ideas about vampires, and an almost obligatory reference point when you’re dealing with fin-de-siècle England. But at this point, I just have vampire fatigue. Ghosts, demons, ghouls, zombies, jinn, sirens, kappa—at this point, I would take basically any supernatural entity, from any cultural tradition, if it meant seeing something other than yet another pale, nocturnal, blood-sucking monster. (And no, making your vampires Egyptian doesn’t count as lending interest to them, which brings me to…)

Sadly Predictable Orientalism: I’d like to say that I’m offended by this because it’s offensive, and in fairness to myself, that is a factor. If I’m being perfectly honest, though, I have to admit that my primary emotional response to the entire Ancient Egyptian vampires blah blah Book of the Dead blah blah Mother of All Evil thing has been weary boredom. I’m sure there’s always an impulse to look to whatever seems exotic when you’re searching for supernatural inspiration, but aside from the fact that that’s romanticization at best and cultural denigration at worst, this particular variant of ethnic stereotyping has just become so tired. It was already overused in the 19th century (witness: Dracula’s creepy Eastern-European vampires, She’s creepy Arab-ish undead princess, etc.), but at least then it provided ample material for speculating on the cultural and racial neuroses born of maintaining a vast imperial network. Penny Dreadful is just sort of mundanely, amorphously offensive. How about some homegrown, modern-day evil for a change? Or, if you absolutely must ransack, twist, and appropriate cultural history, try to keep it (more) in the family, perhaps? Where are the vampire druids?

Sembene: Romantic racism strikes again. I’m truly unsure as to how I’m supposed to respond to Sembene’s presence. I almost feel like I must be missing something, because it seems so unbelievable to me that a TV show in 2014 would include a Magical African purely for ambience.

Schizophrenic Attitudes Towards Sex: When I first started watching Penny Dreadful, I was all set to criticize the show for its historical inaccuracy in matters sexual. All the female characters seemed to have lots of consequence-free sex, and while I am (do I even need to say it?) all for women’s sexual freedom, I found the glaring lack of historical contextualization grating. Yes, sexual mores were loosening up (in some respects) by the end of the 19th century, and yes, some (“New”) women were agitating for greater equality in relationships, cohabitation outside of marriage, etc. And, of course, standards had always varied based on things like social class. But the ideal of female purity still existed, and I wanted the writers of Penny Dreadful to acknowledge and explore that. After watching “Closer Than Sisters,” though, I’ve had to revise my opinion—not so much because the show has made great strides in terms of historical accuracy, but simply because, in that particular episode, the writers seem to have gleefully glommed onto the idea that sex is evil. The guilt Vanessa feels over her sexual desires is nowhere implied to be a matter of social conditioning; on the contrary, it is shown to be wholly logical and justified (well, wouldn’t you also feel guilty about wanting sex if your experience of it was tied to your experience of being possessed by an evil demon?). I guess, in true Victorian fashion, there is Good Sex and there is Evil Sex on Penny Dreadful, but I’m sort of at a loss as to where the parameters are, and in any case, I’d hoped for something that could deal with 19th-century sexuality in a slightly more reflective way.

Dorian Gray’s haircut: I mean, really. What’s going on here? I’m waiting for the reveal that he’s a time traveler in addition to an immortal, since that style is about a hundred years premature.


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8 responses to “Penny Dreadful: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Roughly)

  1. Yeah this confirms all the reasons I didn’t watch it in the first place…..hope it gets better though!

  2. I watched the first two or three episodes and then gave up on it because I thought it was dreadful in the wrong kind of way! I understand not being able to stop though. I have watched two full seasons of Under the Dome which has to be one of the worst shows on TV. I think I keep watching it because I can’t believe it could get any worse and then it does which is so astonishing I have to keep watching!

    • I was really tempted to make the play on “dreadful,” also, but I resisted, because there are truthfully some things about the show that I like. I think if my expectations hadn’t been quite so high, I wouldn’t be quite as annoyed. I think I may have broken the habit of watching it, though–for me, all that’s usually required is finding a substitute show/movie/book to obsess over. Granted, that doesn’t always mean the replacement is any better, but it’s something to work with, at least.

  3. Your article is spot on. I have to say that i also like John Claire/Caliban. This sweet sweet man caught up in a dark world. Yes, the Sembene thing is really a wtf??? And then killing him off first, like they didn’t have to do their affirmative action anymore so they could finally get rid of him. It would have been better if he hadn’t been there in the first place. Seriously, i expect this kind of trivialisation of black characters from American film, but less so from British film today.

    • Sorry for the slooow response–somehow I didn’t get a notification. Anyway, I actually hadn’t known that Sembene was killed off (I had already stopped watching at that point, I guess). Sigh.

  4. Ken

    Some of the scenes were way too long. A few historical inaccuracies. For example the police Inspector who was injured in the Boer War. That was quite a feat, considering the series is set in 1891, and the Boer War didn’t start until 1899. There is a reference to US military intervention in Haiti. That didn’t occur until after the first decade of the 20th century.

    • Oh, interesting. I hadn’t actually realized there were anachronisms beyond the broadly cultural ones (I’m not really one to remember specific dates).

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