I tried an interesting experiment the other day. In preparation for the return of Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful”–the season two debut is this weekend and, it’s already intriguingly available to stream–I looked up a few old interviews with cast members to see how everyone shapes up when faced with the big, bad media–who gets sent where and says what. Eva Green handled herself like a pro and Billie Piper’s sense of humor was unexpectedly great, but Timothy Dalton surprised me the most with his thoughtful (if foul-mouthed) statements about the show and the industry, about entertainment and entertainment journalism. His thoughts, along with helping a friend with her paper on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” made me more aware of the literary influences of “Penny Dreadful.”
I know, saying that “Penny Dreadful” has literary influences is hardly news. The main characters run from a lifted-from-the-pages Victor Frankenstein and Dorian Grey to Dalton’s Van-Helsing-meets-Allan-Quatermain Sir Malcolm (except everyone is sexier on TV). But I’m less interested in the characters (would you believe I haven’t read “Dracula” or “Frankenstein”? The shame) than I am in the genres. I know that the costumes and scenery are both beautiful and spot on (dig those ferns as Victorian décor!), but how does it stack up to the literature of the time? The natural assumption is that “Penny Dreadful” would take its cues from Gothic literature, and it does.
“Penny Dreadful” unquestionably delivers Gothic atmosphere. All the fun stuff seems to happen at night…or at least when there’s an excess of fog. Likewise, its characters meet the literary requirements. Green’s Ms. Ives, despite being one tough cookie herself, is a Gothic heroine in spades: pale, wan and at the mercy of forces that are bigger and older than her. The male heroes are also “not who you think they are,” with identity reveals–the Gothic author’s favorite string along technique–within and throughout.
But in some of its thematics, “Penny Dreadful” ignores its Gothic heritage. Although the settings of foreign lands are constantly encroaching on the story–the hints of Egypt’s mythic past, the dream-like references to Africa–we never seem to leave England, something that places the show more in line with modern realism than fantastic Victoriana. The show’s fascination with running blood and offbeat sexuality runs more along the lines of actual penny dreadfuls than the relatively dry Gothic genre. There’s also little clash between science and the supernatural; along with no real sense of the natural (“Penny Dreadful” is a very urban show), there’s no danger of 19th century romance. In fact, for romantic grounding, one has to go back a little further in time.
I keep coming back to Dalton’s slightly smug reading of the series. In his interview with the Wrap, he noted that the show’s symbols all relate to quests for eternal life, which is a theme as old as Babylon. It’s also something that has more to do with the “doomed quest” thematics of medieval, Arthurian romance than the humble-by-comparison unrequited loves of 19th century romance (not that Victorian literature wasn’t influenced by the medieval stuff as well). After all, if positively doomed quests are your bag of romantic tricks, what’s better than a quest for eternal life? What quest is more doomed than a fight against death?