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IP Watch: ‘Penny Dreadful’

The show uses every trick in the Victorian novel — er, book

Showtime
Showtime

Welcome to IP Watch, where we look at Hollywood’s ever-growing reliance on rebootable (and re-rebootable) intellectual property. First up: Penny Dreadful, Showtime’s take on the greatest monsters of the 19th century.

Here is a partial list of new shows joining the 2016–2017 TV lineup: MacGyver. Training Day. Lethal Weapon. Romeo and Juliet. The Exorcist. Maybe you’ve heard of them! And that’s not all: Matthew Perry’s Odd Couple revival — a string of words that somehow describes a real thing — is entering its second season. Riverdale, based on the Archie comics, is producer Greg Berlanti’s sixth show currently on the air — he’s got the modest NBC hit Blindspot on top of four DC superhero shows on the CW. Hawaii Five-O, Gotham, Lucifer, and Ichabod Crane procedural (again: real!) Sleepy Hollow all continue apace. All of this makes television yet another victim of the syndrome that’s turned our most expensive movies into an ever-deeper series of barrel scrapes. Call it IP Fever — the most precious commodity in Hollywood is no longer a new idea, it’s an untapped reserve of intellectual property. The urge to adapt isn’t new (it hasn’t been since two Spider-Men ago). But TV’s extreme premium on prefab material certainly is.

This might explain, at least partly, why Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, which wraps its third season this Sunday, hasn’t garnered much buzz — at least outside its quietly simmering fan base. As IP Fever has given way to Franchise Fatigue, why would a show based on some of the oldest and most well-trod IP of all — Frankenstein, Dracula, and all their Victorian-novel pals — sound appealing? A basic episode synopsis sounds like a college freshman’s 19th-century lit paper scrambled into a word salad. Every main characters is either directly sourced from that era’s popular imagination or tangentially related to someone who is; by the end of its first season, the cast begins to resemble a gothier, significantly better–dressed version of The Avengers.

Created and largely written by John Logan, Penny Dreadful co-stars Timothy Dalton and Eva Green as aging explorer Malcolm Murray and haunted-yet-devout Vanessa Ives, the father and childhood best friend of Dracula character Mina Harker. (Interestingly, the trio share a common link to a different franchise entirely. Logan wrote exemplary Bond film Skyfall, Green played the best Bond girl in recent memory in Casino Royale, and Dalton, of course, played a criminally underrated Bond.) Eventually, both become original, fully developed characters in their own right, but their origin stories are intrinsically tied to Bram Stoker’s Big Bad, himself a frequent antagonist within the show.

But Penny Dreadful isn’t an attempt at a Vampire Extended Universe in the way that, say, Gotham riffs on a preexisting set of players in a slightly altered context. The show’s characters are not new creations, yet the ways in which they pair off and interact with each other are. And as the show itself has expanded, so has its supernatural roster, to the point where its universe has reached True Blood levels of glorious nonsensicality.

To recap: Midway through the first season, a young and awkward Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) joins the Dream Team, pitting his scientific know-how against primal, supernatural evil. Later, he’ll recruit his classmate, one Henry Jekyll (Shazad Latif). Meanwhile, Victor’s Creature (Rory Kinnear) is presented as a self-aware monster with a taste for poetry. Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) seems like a counterintuitive fit for such a macabre ensemble until his castmates slowly draw out the character’s creepier aspects — like the Bride of Frankenstein (Billie Piper), who recruits him as a lieutenant in a sort of misandrist holy war. And gun-slinging American werewolf Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) somehow doubles as the show’s version of Jack the Ripper. To this already teeming stew of survey-course staples, Penny Dreadful has even begun to add its own flourishes, including not one but two separate roles for Patti LuPone. Oh, and hovering above everything else are two of the oldest stock characters of all — God and the Devil.

Compressed into a few paragraphs, Penny Dreadful already sounds guilty of one of the modern multiverse‘s cardinal sins: too many allegiances to too many characters stuffed into a single vehicle for maximum impact. But there’s a fundamental structural difference between Penny Dreadful and its less successful contemporaries. Unlike the shared universes carefully managed by Disney, Warner Bros., Fox, and the like, the show’s sheer density of characters isn’t in service of anything except its own story. Instead, it updates and combines its characters as it sees fit. Victor Frankenstein fights to rein in both a drug addiction and his own creations; the Bride of Frankenstein rejects both her creator and her intended match to strike out on her own. And because all of the show’s characters reside in the public domain, there are no rights to haggle over with competitors, or legal reasons to maroon Spider-Man in his own, lonely franchise for almost a decade.

It’s a vital advantage, one that automatically removes one of the principal hurdles to the coherence of some of the more encumbered installments of studios’ multiyear expansion plans. (It’s even the main challenge staring down Universal’s entry into the ring, a “classic monster universe” that sounds suspiciously like … Penny Dreadful.) Penny Dreadful isn’t interested in preserving its leads in amber to keep them as static — and therefore perennially bankable — as possible.

Yet the license Penny Dreadful takes with its characters belies a fundamental faith to, and affection for, its inspirations. Like his forebears, Logan is deeply interested in themes of man versus nature, sin versus faith, and life versus death — interests he communicates via gorgeous dialogue straight out of the Victorian novels that serve as his source material. It’s a fidelity that’s only amplified by the production design, which crafts a sooty, post-industrial London populated with funhouses, wax museums, and other macabre distractions for the era’s growing leisure class.

All this contributes to what ultimately distinguishes Penny Dreadful from the increasingly overcrowded field: the sense that its known quantities are there because Logan wants them to be, not because he feels they have to be. When the calling card of the modern reboot/remake/retread is a perfunctory cynicism — the idea that viewers can’t be trusted to cotton to new material, therefore anything with a shadow of a fan base takes precedence — Penny Dreadful is one of very few that doesn’t feel like a naked ploy for eyeballs (A feeling, unfortunately, borne out by its ratings). This grim, Gothic drama has something its Technicolor rivals don’t: joy.