Penny Dreadful Season 1, Episode 1 Review: “Night Work”
At long last, the premiere of Showtime’s new blood and guts series has finally happened. I didn’t have to wait to watch since they released the ep two weeks ago, but I did. I’m a fan of anticipation. I worried that Penny Dreadful would be a gorier, nudity-infused version of American Horror Story. I was also optimistic about a show that combined new people with prominent fictional characters like Victor Frankenstein, Mina Harker, and Dorian Grey. Having seen the first episode, “Night Work,” I’m not sure how I feel about it. Spoilers after the jump.
“Night Work” begins by showing us an anonymous mother and child. We know nothing about them–nor do we need to since the mother is pulled through a window, presumably to her death, within seconds. This tells us little more than hey, something scary is going on. Cue opening credits, which have snakes, spiders, and bats—clearly a shout out to old school horror tropes.
We’re then taken to a woman engaged in fervent prayer while random scary noises happen in the background. There’s a spider on her, and she’s alarmingly cool with it. Soon we aren’t sure if she’s praying, or if she’s a medium. We hear a voice, not hers, say, “I’m hungry,” before the woman passes out. Cut to London and a ridiculous show featuring a ridiculously fake American gunslinger. It’s the 1890’s, Jack the Ripper times, and the American is Ethan Chandler. He’s a sharp shootin’ gunslinger who enjoys standing-up sex with random ladies whose names he doesn’t know. Classy.
Ethan is approached by a woman we later learn is called Vanessa. She has work for him, ominous mysterious night work. It is a murder? A bodyguard gig? Something criminal? He doesn’t care; he just needs the money. Vanessa is one of those chicks who uses basic observation skills to pretend she has deep knowledge of people. Ethan accepts the gig without knowing this woman’s name either. The gig takes place in the basement of an opium den, and includes an unnamed man we know as Timothy Dalton. He warns Ethan not to be alarmed by any crazy shit he’s about to see. When Ethan has follow up questions, he’s told that they’re going after someone close to T-Dalt, someone who has been taken from him. When T-Dalt addresses the people in the basement, they all speak Arabic.
When the fighting begins, it’s clear that we’re dealing with super humans. It doesn’t take long to realize that they’re vampires—the leader of whom is called simply, a creature. They go down via gunshots and heart-stabs, so we’re not playing by the usual rules. Vampires have taken T-Dalt’s daughter. The man, by the way, is an explorer called Sir Malcolm. Ser Malcolm’s daughter was taken, and he would murder the whole world to get her back. They kill a bunch of vampires but don’t find the girl. The gunslinger stands out in this scene like an absurd fool. But that’s what Josh Harnett is best at.
From there, the creature’s body is taken to a snotty young doctor who thinks he’s too good to help. When he meets the American, he hopes only that he knows something about Edison’s electrical work. Once they convince him to examine the creature, he finds that it’s not human. It’s impossible to age, and has sharp pointy teeth with no wear on them. It has also grown an exoskeleton, and under that is a series of hieroglyphs. This means the next visit will be to an Egyptologist at the British Museum. Before they can get there though, there’s a hideous multiple murder being investigated by a man named Galsworthy. Even the photographer is horrified. A Ripper murder? Maybe, but he never killed families.
Ethan pays Vanessa a visit in her home, where her tarot table sits on an eight-pointed-star. Her servant is a man called Sembene, who doesn’t say much and has a fascinating face. Ethan is skeptical of Vanessa’s power to divine from the cards. She asks him about the demi monde, or the little world that exists between life and death—like where vampires live. She tells him of curses, wisdom, and that anybody with half a brain would leave this situation and never return. But if he wants to stay, they can use him. They need someone violent and smarter than he looks. Ethan wants more answers, many of which Vanessa won’t be giving up for the asking. She implores him to choose a card, and he picks The Lovers from her very odd tarot desk. I ordered her deck from the Showtime store, so I’ll know more once it arrives. Ethan says he won’t stay, but it’s obvious that he will. Sir Malcolm is pleased.
The Egyptologist is thrilled to meet Sir Malcolm. He’s a hilariously flamboyant man who uses awesome words like papyri, and keeps flesh-eating beetles in his office. He’s intrigued by the photos of the hieroglyphs; and reveals that they’re from the Book of the Dead. It appears to mean blood transformation, blood cure, or blood curse. Gee, I wonder which one it will turn out to be. The Egyptologist tells Sir Malcolm to return Friday after next for dinner and further translating. Malcolm is not pleased at having to wait.
Sembene brings a tuxedo with an invitation to the young doctor–to meet with Sir Malcolm at his club. This doctor has no time to play games. He says the only valid science is that which discovers the secrets of life and death. Science for its own sake is basically one big wank in his opinion. Malcolm agrees, and is impressed. By this point, it’s pretty clear that the young doctor is Victor Frankenstein. He seems awfully young, maybe young enough to believe in a place where science and superstition walk hand in hand. By the end of their meeting, it’s clear that the doc is in.
Sir Malcolm returns home to his giant house and unlocked windows. You know he’s rich, because his house is wired for electricity. But wait, there’s someone there. A woman in torment. Sir Malcolm recognizes his daughter’s sobbing. Oh yeah, and his daughter is Mina Harker. So…she’s a vampire. This is followed by a cryptic talk with Vanessa about her true friend doing no harm, that people don’t change—only circumstances. Apparenlty, Vanessa committed a “transgression” that brought all this to pass. From the sound of it, there’s plenty of guilt to go around. In literature, Vanessa is the name of the true wife of Dracula. So there’s that.
Victor Frankenstein returns home as well. Within minutes, an electrical surge causes his monster to come to life. Well, he doesn’t look that monstery, more like someone who lived through an autopsy and is now really scared of everything. Meanwhile, Vanessa prays fervently in Latin, until she hallucinates spiders pouring out of an inverted crucifix. Let’s hope it’s a hallucination anyway. The naked monster also lets us know that Showtime, like HBO, will only show penises if they are not erect or attached to virile men. Great contact lenses on the monster, though.
The jury is still out on this show for me. It seems predictable and ordinary, plus we haven’t been given any reason to care about these people. We’re merely intrigued by them. A penny dreadful is, after all, a cheap and scary read that could be about anything at all. They’re setting up what could turn in to a compelling series, but there are enough variables that this could all collapse into a big, blood-soaked nothing. The camera work and score are unremarkable so far. Several scenes seem longer than they should be, and the pacing is maddeningly slow—though that may be intentional to simulate Sir Malcolm’s desperation. Like the 2012 movie Stoker, I’m concerned as to what the spiders are supposed to symbolize. I’m cautiously optimistic, and look forward to meeting the rest of the characters. Helen McCrory and Billie Piper are coming up too, so that’ll be cool.
See you’s next week!