This slickly-produced Showtime series returns to the well of modern horror: Dracula. We get an assemblage of second-stringer horrific creations of the Victorian Era bodged together in a kind of revisionist take on the events of Bram Stoker’s novel. It’s a classic kind of “what if” genre mash-up, but there are a few problems with the implementation that seem to me all too common in this genre.
The main problem that I had with this is that on the most fundamental level, “What If” alternate imaginings rely structurally on a working knowledge of the original. If you’ve never read or heard of Dracula, then this drama must work on its own merits and do all its own world-building. If you, as virtually everyone will be, are familiar with the source material then any time you spend revisiting the original material is absolutely wasted. The main problem I had with Penny Dreadful was precisely that it devoted huge chunks of time to re-exposit the classic characters with whom familiarity could be assumed as a baseline. We have for example, in a season of 8 episodes, almost an entire episode to explaining how Victor Frankenstein became the man he was an the creation of his famous monster. There is no strong “what if” component here, as it’s played fairly much as you understand the story. That means a little over 10% of the show was a straightforward waste of my time. In rough terms, this 8 hours really seemed like it could be efficiently re-cut into half that time by simply showing respect for the audience’s familiarity with the genre tropes and existing characters. Perhaps the most gratuitous were the scenes showing the debauched Dorian Gray – while not without a risque charm, they were simply dead time as far as advancing the story is concerned.
It’s also hard to fully embrace any of the characters’ motivations or actions. We have the central plot-driving figure of Sir Malcolm, threatening in one scene to burn the whole world in order to save Mina from the Vampire, while in the next scene planning a lengthy trip to Africa. If there was supposed to be some deliberate tension or contradiction here in the heart of the character, I never glimpsed it. It seemed simply like the show had too many things it wanted to include and rather than discard Sir Malcolm’s sob-story about his dead son, decided to try and have it both ways. Despite other whole episodes devoted to exposition regarding the characters’ back-story, all the relationships felt false and forced to me, constructions of plot rather than character.
The cast do their best with the material, and as they are all first-rate talents, I think they basically pull it off. I watched the whole season, after all, despite my many misgivings about the reliance on over-explaining everything, glacial story pacing, and bizarre character decisions. It is wonderfully shot too; the cinematographer has a real cinematic flair that elevates the drama on an aesthetic level.
Overall, this was not terrible, but like with many other recent revisitations to this material, it left me disappointed. It was just not enough of its own creation.