For the past month or so, ads for Showtime’s new television show Penny Dreadful have been a constant companion on my commute: posters and posters of beautiful people in Old Time clothes, who stare at me seriously as I waited for the train.
Recently, the ads for Penny Dreadful have gained some neighbors: ads for A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth MacFarlane’s upcoming Western comedy movie. These ads are almost identical to Penny Dreadful’s: yet another series of posters of beautiful people in Old Time clothes. These two sets of advertisements blended together to the point where I can no longer recall, without checking, whether or not they are both still hanging up. They are advertising the same thing.
Well, A Million Ways to Die in the West is a comedy of piled-up Western stereotypes and gross-out jokes, and Penny Dreadful is an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink thriller made up of Victorian stereotypes. A Million Ways to Die’s poster, at least at my subway stop, features Sarah Silverman, while Penny Dreadful’s brunette is Eva Green. And A Million Ways to Die is, I suppose, a somewhat lowbrow kind of movie, while Penny Dreadful has the kind of style meant to telegraph “quality television.”
These distinctions, however, don’t add up to much in practice. Watching Penny Dreadful, or looking up the trailer for A Million Ways to Die, you realize that both of them share a strange trick of floating almost ten thousand miles above anything that seems even remotely real, like tasting a candy that’s not an imitation cherry flavor but an imitation of an imitation of imitation cherry. Both of them count on you not to care about this complete lack of content because you accept it as the sacrifice necessary for humor (A Million Ways to Die) or what I’ll dub “awesomeness” (Penny Dreadful).
Penny Dreadful checks off everything required to be awesome. It looks expensive. It sets its scenes either in enviable luxury or loving detailed poverty, which is to be expected—Josh Logan, the creator behind Penny Dreadful, worked on Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd and Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus.
There’s an inscrutable ice queen (Miss Green) and a rugged explorer-turned-vampire-hunter (Timothy Dalton) and an American con man (Josh Hartnett) and a mad scientist (Harry Treadway). They all fight vampires, who are rendered appropriately frightening and inhuman (and whose victims are given spectacularly gory deaths). They all seem to have dark secrets. There’s tarot and there’s science and they both work. Sometimes people pray in front of crucifixes, in Latin. By the time you find out that the mad scientist with the interest in electricity is Victor Frankenstein and the vampire hunters are seeking a victim named Mina you might as well kick back and await the inevitable arrival in some future episode of the young doctor with mood swings whose last name will turn out to be Jekyll.
As far as a plot or a premise goes, that description is just covers it. The characters are all competent at their jobs (mad science, killing vampires) and project an aura of effortless cool through a combination of sharp dressing and rapid dialogue. But it’s difficult to imagine any of them will ever be surprising, despite their oft-mentioned dark secrets. It’s honestly difficult to imagine any of them at all once the episode ends, because they are basically ciphers. There’s a reason the clothes feature so prominently in those advertisements: they are doing all the work of distinguishing these people. Not because the acting is poor (it’s not), but because there is nothing there for the actors to work with.
An example: When the American is taken on to do an unspecified dangerous job by the ice queen (whose name is Vanessa Ives), he asks whether or not it’s murder. “Would it matter?” she asks him. He shrugs, smiles, takes the job. This is—again—very cool. It’s also pretty dumb. Whether or not you want a hired gun who is so blasé about what he’s being hired to do that he actually doesn’t care what it is—not even on a moral level but on a basic practical one—doesn’t come up. The exchange doesn’t tell you anything about her judgment or his character. It’s so contentless, in fact, so unspecific to them, that it is later repeated, in the same episode, between two totally different characters in a different situation.
Why do I hate this show so much? It just seems so doomed to be terrible, and did from the moment I saw those posters, and I don’t understand why. I’m sure as the story progress we’ll watch Vanessa Ives & Co., clad in increasingly elaborate bustles, face down vampires of all sorts; that at some point there will be a shocking revelation about someone’s true nature or loyalty, and so on. But nothing real is ever going to happen because nothing real is even in here.
For knowing anything, or indeed caring about anything, also stands in the way of awesomeness. If you’ve read Frankenstein or Dracula it isn’t going to add much other than a sort of inner ping! when somebody says a name, but it might very well annoy you when young Victor raises someone from the dead and responds—at least in the first episode—as a tender and loving father.
Or maybe it will annoy you how little the characters seem to think or feel. Or maybe it will annoy you that the poor are either Dickensian furniture or gruesome murder victims. Or that the show displays a bunch of Chinese opium addicts for, apparently, no reason at all. Or maybe you’ll be annoyed by some wholly different part of this show: the real point here is that this show actively punishes you for caring very much about any particular, or even paying attention to them. On the level of particulars, it doesn’t seem to exist.
In some of the promotional materials (not, alas, the ones on the subway), Penny Dreadful has suggested this might not be inevitably the case; that the show might deal in loneliness, or the hunger to be known, or the capacity for evil, or the fear of self-knowledge; that there might be something hungry and raw at the bottom of this well-produced machine. Josh Logan has spoken a few times on how he views this project as somewhat autobiographical. So perhaps my hatred is all misplaced. Perhaps this is an elaborate trick to get me to think there’s nothing here so that when there is something, boy, will I be surprised.
But for now, if I were forced to pick one of them, I’d pick A Million Ways to Die in the West. It doesn’t want me to care about anything either. But at the very least, it’s honest about it.