Our Spoiler-Free Review of the First Episode of Penny Dreadful

Showtime's new Victorian Gothic series Penny Dreadful has been shrouded in mystery, but yesterday the network leaked the pilot. Without giving away the good stuff, let's talk about some of Penny Dreadful's greatest mysteries and wonders.

Mystery: What's even going on?

In a nutshell, everything's creepy, and it's up to an enigmatic woman and some tormented gents to uncover it before every last day player in England is violently dispatched. The characters are what you'd expect if Van Helsing and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman had a fancy kid; it's public-domain Gothic horror thrown into a filigree blender. The confusion's still pretty thick on the ground, but if you enjoy a nice 19th-century gross-out, literary flourishes, or the supernatural, Penny Dreadful will probably provide.

Our Spoiler-Free Review of the First Episode of Penny Dreadful

Wonder: The Cast

Casting is so key in television. A great ensemble sells the weirdest stuff (see: head-lanterns), while an awkward cast can flounder in a show that has a much more unified tone than Penny Dreadful. But this works. Timothy Dalton's here for both his campy roots and sheen of refined creepiness, and he unrolls his lines with relish. Harry Treadaway exudes intense earnestness. And Josh Hartnett's put to good use as a surly gunfighter who's awfully American. (Hartnett drawls with such Continental determination you might find yourself wondering about obscure idioms of having "been a haircut before" before you realize he said "hired gun," he just didn't open his mouth first.)

Our Spoiler-Free Review of the First Episode of Penny Dreadful

(Josh Hartnett, too cool to care about enunciating his past as a killer. source)

But the undisputed star is Eva Green. Penny Dreadful embraces her intensity to great effect. Her moments of terror are powerful, her wry Bond monologue perfectly self-aware. But never has her palpable thousand-yard stare found so welcome a home and such ripe targets. Minutes into the pilot, Vanessa Ives is already sublimely done.

Our Spoiler-Free Review of the First Episode of Penny Dreadful

(Vanessa Ives, currently Over It at an orbital distance of approximately 350,000 miles.)

Mystery: How much creepy horror are we talking about?

Lots, of every kind! While avoiding major spoilers, this is a land where corn-syrup blood flows freely, and if they can't find a way to corral a few handfuls of real bugs, they'll CGI hundreds. Penny Dreadful is also familiar with the visual vocabulary of the genre: if the camera's panning alongside a character, you know to look behind them. It's a familiar dread that thickens the atmosphere—more effectively than the piles of corpse parts, frankly—and makes for nicely portentous Gothic.

Wonder: The Production Design

It's not quite Victorian (everything's too restrained and tasteful; it's not Victorian until you can barely exit a room because of all the accent tables), but the pilot offers promising design, including late-Victorian costumes that actually seem inspired by history, designer abattoirs, and colonial-genteel gentlemen's clubs. Potted palms for everyone! Well, for four people.

Our Spoiler-Free Review of the First Episode of Penny Dreadful

Mystery: Will it deconstruct the Victorian era or just live in it?

Sadly, first impressions are not great. Danny Sapani has presence as Sembene, but from the pilot we know only that he can open doors, and he's the only character of color who's been introduced. The core cast isn't fully assembled yet, so there's still time, but for now this is an aspect of penny dreadfuls where the show's just echoing its source material. Here's hoping the show starts tweaking tropes soon.

Wonder: The sheer pulp.

Though it clearly hopes its well-appointed horror achieves Hannibal artfulness, this show isn't afraid to play with Hammer high camp in the meantime. Sure, characters foreshadow together of an evening, because why not, but nobody explains anything to their hired gun—they just don't like him enough to bother. And pulp's influence is evident everywhere, from rain falling on the tormented hero to dialogue made to reach the cheap seats: in one of the vaguest introductory lines ever, Dalton growls through, "This is...the individual?" This is a show that's treading on well-worn ground; if it's a little gleefully terrible in the process, that's probably part of the point.

Curious? You can catch the pilot on YouTube, or come back after the official May 11 premiere, where I'll be recapping every plot twist and shouting "NOPE" at all the bugs.