REVIEW: Penny Dreadful

After weeks and weeks of waiting, Netflix has finally become available in Belgium. I was absolutely psyched to try it and so it happened that within two days I couldn't help but binge watch and finish an entire series. To be fair, Netflix's own Penny Dreadful only has one season so far. Some of my friends had uttered their enthusiasm about the show and its blurb left me both fascinated and sceptical. 

"The classic tales of Dracula, Frankenstein, Dorian Gray and more are woven together in this horror series set on the dark streets of Victorian London."

Anything with a plotline similar to the above is, in my experience, bound to go wrong at some point but still I decided to give Penny Dreadful a try. For one thing, the cast looked great.

From the first episode on, the show seemed to adopt a Victorian London with a strong Tim Burton vibe. What drew me in was not so much that atmosphere or a fantastic first episode (because frankly, the first episode did not convince me), but mainly Eva Green's depiction of the morally ambiguous Vanessa Ives. Miss Ives is a character so fascinating that you just need to find out more about her motivations, her secrets and her backstory. However, without spoiling too much, her further storyline (and that of the only other significant female character) left me rather annoyed and even disturbed. Most of the other characters also adopt interesting backstories as the story progresses. Especially the tension between Miss Ives and Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) makes for some fantastic scenes.

The personal development is definitely more extensive than the general plot, which unravels very slowly and sadly, remains rather thin. The characters' histories often are more interesting than the plot itself, as the show creates tension by offering only little bits of their backstories at a time. Despite (or thanks to?) the story being so singular, the characters do get the chance to trail from their paths constantly. Those distractions often create interesting scenes and cover various (occult) themes while making interesting use of horror clich├ęs.

To address the elephant in the room, I was pleasantly surprised by the way the literary characters of Dracula, Frankenstein and Dorian Gray had been woven into the plot. Their presence was not in any way annoying nor did their insertion into the series disturb the story. Generally literary characters put into other narratives are very obviously just that, having been inserted into the story with the sole intention of being inserted. In Penny Dreadful, every one of those characters fits into the plot and there are constant small references to their original stories.

Even though Penny Dreadful is flawed in several ways (and left the feminist in me confused at best), the atmosphere remains consistently melancholical throughout the series and the imagery is spooky in the best way possible. Some of the characters are interesting and well-rounded, which makes up for the not always equally interesting villains. And yes, the plot may be thin, but it unravels and develops very subtly and information on the characters is handed out sparingly in small chunks, to keep the viewer craving for more. If the series had any more than eight episodes I would probably not recommend it so heartily, but since you can easily finish it in a short time, I can safely say that it is worth your time.

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