There's something about Victorian England that holds a certain allure for me. Stories of magic, mystery and horror set in the foggy streets of 1890s London have always attracted me, from Sherlock Holmes to Dracula.
This era in London, and fiction in general, manages to blend a sense of romance with the sprawling cesspool that London had become. It was a time when the Industrial Revolution was changing the world and old superstitions clashed with the steam and cogs of machines. The perfect setting for tales that began to fuse the supernatural with science.
I approached Penny Dreadful with a healthy dose of skepticism, a show blending 19th century characters from Dracula, Frankenstein and Dorian Gray had the potential to be wonderful or, as I must admit I thought it would be, an awful mish-mash gimmick trying to play on the popularity of these characters but never capturing what is truly great about them. A show that just wanted to use the formula of Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen but probably wouldn't be as good. I'm glad to report that I was pleasantly surprised. Excuse me using the obvious here but Penny Dreadful is not, in fact, dreadful.
The reason Penny Dreadful works is that it approaches its subject matter with a subtle hand. There is never a sense of look-at-how-clever-we-are with the introduction of its characters. There are also genuine moments of surprise and emotion. When Victor Frankenstein creates Proteus we believe this is his famous "monster" until the shock reveal of Caliban. The seance scene in the second episode as Vanessa becomes possessed is among the most powerful single scenes I've seen on television in a long time, brilliantly written and acted.
The characters, those plucked from existing fiction and those that are original creations, are well grounded amongst the supernatural elements, real people living with conflict and secrets.
Each of the shows story threads, with the exception maybe of Dorian Gray's which needs more attention in the next series, are deeply engaging. Even though some aspects of the story may have been predictable, much of it is not and I'm really looking forward to seeing where it goes in season two.
If you're having reservations about checking out Penny Dreadful put them aside and give it a try. It's entertaining, well written, well shot and well acted. Like me you might discover a pleasant surprise lurking in the streets of Victorian London.