This show proposes that a story might emerge from a mash-up of the popular sensations alluded to by its title and of the familiar monster tales evoked through its choice of characters. However it resists inventing that story. Instead it turns the raw material this way and that considering the initial premise’s possibilities in the light of the various, endless options, and only ever settles on the narrative’s path forward when it absolutely must.
The result is not unpleasant and can even be beautiful if you like late-20th century Goth-influenced takes on Victorian furniture and clothing. The wallpapers are gorgeous. There is velvet and lace galore and even smatterings of glossy leather. Corsets and vests are de rigueur. Everything is cut and coloured—like the actors hair—to read as cool and everything at every moment is macabre.1
The narrative however goes nowhere, lurching from one subject to the next and one genre to the next until the sprawl begins to place a sizeable burden on the “Previously on Penny Dreadful…” introductory montages. I remember one montage that worked through previous events three different ways before things had been sorted out enough to make some sort of sense, and then incredibly—and this says everything about how the series operates—the episode that followed had nothing to do with any of what had come before!
The result is a sense that things are being made up episode by episode, that anything can happen, and that we are expected to watch not for the story but for the style, which is to say, the spectacle of the style and of it’s presentation in ostentatious poses drawn from fashion photography. Any resulting pleasure is a product of the moods this style and these poses conjure, which means the show’s appeal rests squarely in the domain of taste: you either like these moments or you don’t, and if you don’t, there’s very little for you to hold onto.
For my part, I found the stretches between the moments I loved—even though there were many of them—bleak and long. So the season was heavy going.