Showtime's sexy, gothic 'Penny Dreadful' breathes poetry

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Eva Green stars as Vanessa Ives, a psychic medium on a mission to save her best friend from a powerful vampire-demon, who has intimate run-ins with the demonic herself in "Penny Dreadful." (Jonathan Hession/Showtime)

There's something wonderfully preposterous about Showtime's Penny Dreadful, an exciting nouveau-Gothic series about a group of characters from 19th-century novels who band together to fight evil.

Eva Green plays the pivotal role of Vanessa Ives, a luscious Catholic sinner and psychic medium whose best friend, Mina Harker (from Bram Stoker's Dracula) is taken by a devilish vampire-demon known only as the Master. Vanessa joins forces with Mina's father, renowned explorer and mountain climber Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton at his virile, thunderous best) to rescue the damsel.

They are variously aided by Victor Frankenstein (Mary Shelley's scientist played by Fortitude's Harry Treadaway); American sharpshooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett, with the sexiest, most dynamic flash of hair on TV); and Dr. Abraham van Helsing (Stoker's vampire staker, played by the incomparable David Warner).

That mission ended with disaster. This series returns for its second season 10 p.m. Sunday. In it, our heroes begin to discover the extent of the Master's apocalyptic machinations, which draw heavily from the creepazoid stories of 20th-century American author H.P. Lovecraft.

Penny Dreadful isn't an original idea. Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and the miserably bad 2003 film) assayed a similar mashup in 1999 with some of the same dramatis personae.

But Showtime's gory, psycho-sexual thriller is unique for two reasons: Its characters aren't valiant champions of truth, beauty, and goodness, but deliciously compromised anti-heroes who are morally ambivalent, if not downright nasty.

More compelling - at least for English lit nerds - our leads go toe-to-toe and fang-to-fang against an army of vampires while speaking poetry.

That, in a phrase, is where the heart and soul of Penny Dreadful lies.

Where else on TV can you watch a couple flirt by pitching Wordsworth verses to one another while performing an autopsy on a recently slain vampire from ancient Egypt?

This is not merely a dolled-up costume-drama-slash-slasher, though it has plenty of the old horror-show and perverse, dangerous sex.

 

Lines Written in Early Spring

 

Have I not reason to lament / What man has made of man?

- William Wordsworth

Penny Dreadful is the creation of John Logan, an accomplished playwright (Never the Sinner, Red), and Oscar-nominated screenwriter (Gladiator, The Aviator), who manages, with considerable guile and, yes, aplomb, to intermingle high and low, mixing blood-drinking with sophisticated discourse on art about drinking blood.

Listen carefully and you'll be amazed at just how frequently the series quotes from the literary and musical works of Keats, Shelley, Wagner, and Léo Delibes.

Penny Dreadful poses a fascinating question: Why did British artists so feverishly embrace a demonic aesthetic during an era when the British Empire commanded more wealth, power, and internal stability than any other nation?

The horror portrayed in stories by Stoker reveal the dark side of Britain's success: the opium trade; the coal mines; the stultifying factories and mills. All conditions written about by Oscar Wilde, whose gorgeous creation Dorian Gray is a love interest for both Vanessa and Ethan.

Portrayed by impossibly beautiful singer Reeve Carney (best known for his lead role in Broadway's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), Dorian embodies the demonic: Like his fellow aristocrats, he seeks pleasure without a thought for the consequences. Dorian can't age or suffer from sin because of a magical portrait. Every time he debauches himself, his picture grows older and nastier, yet he never ages.

Penny Dreadful doesn't stop with a critique of Britain. In a move as daring as it is wily, Logan suggests how closely the Victorian literary landscape and social structure mirror our contemporary American reality, right down to a series of wars waged for access to cheap oil.

Like the Romantic poets, our conservative televangelists and liberal environmentalists both lament that we have lost contact with the glory of nature and the divinity apparent within its harmony.

As Wordsworth puts it in one of Victor's favorite poems, "Lines Written in Early Spring": How can we be made in God's image if all we do is promote social inequality and wage wars?

 

To take into the air my quiet breath

 

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death.

- John Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale"

In a chilling scene in the first season, the devil visits Vanessa in the guise of Sir Malcolm.

So what does the Dark Lord want to talk about? Does he get all medieval and threaten to roast Vanessa in a fiery pit? Nope, he wants to discuss "Ode to a Nightingale," one of the most famous poems by Romantic poet par excellence John Keats.

Lucifer is taken by the piquancy of the poem: Keats knows he's dying and he writes of the enticing call of death, of how he wants it to take his breath as if in an embrace.

Elsewhere, Victor says he's haunted by a line from Shelley, "No more let Life divide what Death can join together."

While Dorian romances Ethan by playing him a recording of the Wagner aria "Liebestod," he says with a seductive, velvet voice, "Translated literally, it means love-death."

Penny Dreadful is set in the era of fin de siècle aesthetes such as Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. They extolled the virtues of pleasure and the pursuit of art for its own sake. More than half a century earlier, the Romantics spoke ardently about the moral power of art and wrote pathos-filled odes to nature.

Yet they had one thing in common: love of death. They developed a whole erotic language of death.

Keats' and Shelley's works seem quaint to us now. Yet they were horrifying in their own way. They struggled, in different ways, with the same questions that haunt the characters in Penny Dreadful: Religion offered salvation. When we died, we were supposed to become as one with the divine. Now that religion is dead, as these artists believed, how can we achieve peace?

For the Romantics, art was the answer: Its sublimity lifted them from the mundane. By the end of the century, a cynicism took hold. The only answers left seemed to be booze, sex, drugs (and er, rock and roll in the shape of Wagner and Mahler).

Vanessa, who feels cut off from God, nonetheless repeatedly becomes intimate with the demonic. She finds oblivion in a night of sexual abandon with Dorian in one of the final episodes of season one. By morning, she's possessed by the devil.

This season, the Master attacks Vanessa again, this time through a coven of witches.

And, boy, are they sexy.

And lethal.

 


TELEVISION

Penny Dreadful

10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime.


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