On Sunday night, Showtime is dropping a little self-quarantine gift in the form of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, a horror drama set in Los Angeles in the 1930s that lines up a murderer’s row of actors from your other favorite dramas, including Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones), Kerry Bishé (Halt and Catch Fire), Michael Gladis (Mad Men), and Nathan Lane (American Crime Story: The People vs. O. J. Simpson, along with pretty much everything else you’ve ever loved).
But if the first part of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels’ title sounds familiar, you might be half-remembering the original Penny Dreadful, which aired for three respectfully (but somewhat indifferently) received seasons from 2014 to 2016 on Showtime. Penny Dreadful: City of Angels is a full-blown spinoff, and you can watch the whole thing without seeing a minute of Penny Dreadful proper.
But while it’s kind of a bummer that the original Penny Dreadful never got the attention it deserved in its prime, it’s also an asset to any unspoiled, self-quarantined binge-watchers—because all three of the original Penny Dreadful’s seasons are quietly aging on Netflix right now. And if you’re a horror fan, there’s never been a better opportunity to drink them all down like a fine wine.
The original Penny Dreadful was, and remains, a singularly odd beast. Arriving in the midst of the much-heralded Golden Age of Television—perhaps the first time a prestige period gothic horror-melodrama could have snuck onto the small screen—Penny Dreadful might have seemed, at first glance, to slot neatly alongside other horror dramas like FX’s American Horror Story and HBO’s True Blood. But by the end of its premiere episode, Penny Dreadful has already established itself as something singularly, fascinatingly weird.
It starts with the cast. At a time when big-name actors like Matthew McConaughey were migrating to the creative freedoms of the small screen, Penny Dreadful put together one of the more eclectic groups of actors on TV. Most of them end up doing some of the best work of their careers. The cast includes Timothy Dalton, best known for being a previous generation’s James Bond; Josh Hartnett, best known for being a heartthrob about a decade earlier; and Reeve Carney, best known for playing Peter Parker in the ridiculous, much-maligned Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
Most of all, there’s Eva Green. Green has spent much of her film career as the best thing, by far, in junk like Dark Shadows, 300: Rise of an Empire, and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Penny Dreadful provides a welcome reminder that Eva Green can also be the best thing, by far, in a good thing. As far as I can tell, the only reason Green doesn’t have a whole shelf of Emmys for her performance as the enigmatic, mercurial Vanessa Ives is that Emmy voters weren’t paying enough attention.
Particularly in its first season, Penny Dreadful is a difficult show to recommend without spoiling a big part of what makes it fun. What I can say is that Penny Dreadful has essentially been reverse-engineered to delight horror buffs. The show’s title is a reference to the cheap, lurid magazines that delighted the working class in Victorian England, but the grab bag of references includes everything from the classics of gothic horror to Paris’s infamous Grand Guignol. I don’t want to go deep on what Penny Dreadful is actually doing—for reasons that will become clear by the end of the pilot—but if there’s a type of horror you like, you’re going to find it somewhere in Penny Dreadful’s three eerie, gorgeous seasons.
If I have a complaint about Penny Dreadful, it’s that the show ultimately peaked a little too early. In a year that saw instant classics like Mad Men’s "Waterloo," Game of Thrones’s "The Lion and the Rose," and Hannibal’s "Mizumono," Penny Dreadful’s freshman season managed to turn out an episode that could go toe-to-toe with any of them. The show’s fifth episode, "Closer Than Sisters," is a masterpiece in miniature, borrowing a favorite gothic trope by enlisting Green to tell a largely self-contained horror story in the form of a letter she’s writing. (Pro tip: If you somehow manage to write a note-perfect riff on the overheated purple prose that defined the gothic in literature, hire Eva Green to deliver it.)
Penny Dreadful quickly shows some of the flaws that would eventually haunt similar prestige-y shows like Westworld—in particular, an uneven second season and an unfortunate tendency to reveal "twists" long after attentive audiences will already have guessed them. But even when the plot took a bad detour, Penny Dreadful’s real brilliance came in its form. The show worked hard to keep its audience of seasoned horror fans off-kilter, using an unconventional structure to alternate between forward momentum and deep dives into the characters’ odd, grim pasts, and it never stopped tossing in great weird ideas with great new actors to sell them. (A partial sample: Brian Cox, Wes Studi, and Patti goddamned LuPone.)
After staggering on like that for a few years—in three seasons that, with characteristic weirdness, contained eight episodes, 10 episodes, and nine episodes, respectively—Penny Dreadful saved its best trick for last. At the end of the third season finale, the words "The End" suddenly appeared on screen. Without a word about it in public, series creator John Logan had successfully disguised what would turn out to be the show’s series finale, shocking fans by abruptly concluding Penny Dreadful in a way that nobody even had the chance to see coming.
At a time when way too many TV shows leave way too much riding on the series finale—and strangling themselves under the pressure of all that fanfare—it’s a trick somebody else really should have borrowed by now. But that’s Penny Dreadful: taking risky, wild, fascinating swings that somehow manage to fly just under the radar.
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Originally Appeared on GQ