Penny Dreadful is gory, jumpy, absurd… and stubbornly secretive

Episode one might make you jump, but when it comes to the plot it’s moving at a snail’s pace, says Ellie Walker-Arnott

Sky Atlantic’s new co-production with Showtime, Penny Dreadful doesn’t really live up to its namesake.


The show might be sensational but it certainly isn’t cheap. In fact, it’s clearly dripping with cash. Cinematic and beautifully shot with lush sets, opulent costume and impeccable attention to detail, there’s clearly a lot of money behind TV’s newest fantasy thriller. And its cast is surprisingly star-studded too, comprising a slick Josh Harnett, Eva Green, captivating as always, a charismatic Timothy Dalton and a suitably haunted Harry Treadaway. 

Being horrifying and spectacular it’s got down to a tee. The drama itself is gory, jumpy and absurd. Set in a dark and dank Victorian London, inhabited with demons, murderers, mysterious goings on and numerous puddles of blood, Penny Dreadful is not for the faint hearted.

The brainchild of Bond writer John Logan and produced by Sam Mendes, the tale borrows effortlessly from gothic literature, iconology and history. It’s a London where the myth of Jack the Ripper lives alongside reimagined literary figures like Victor Frankenstein, Dracula and Dorian Gray.

The drama follows Sir Malcolm Murray (Dalton) an upper-class gentleman who will go to any lengths to rescue his daughter from an unknown supernatural evil. But when it comes to the actual story, it all still remains to be seen…

Penny Dreadful might make you jump, but plot wise it’s moving at a snail’s pace – really taking its leisurely time to introduce itself, to the point of barely telling us anything.

If Penny Dreadful was a film, the first episode would literally have been the opening ten minutes. (And as it’s John Logan’s first foray into TV, you can’t help but wonder if he got a bit excited by the thought of having eight hours to tell his story rather than two.) Yes, it was intriguing – and it’s sure to please dedicated fans of dark, gothic drama –  but is it intriguing enough to draw the rest of us in? 

Personally, I’m not sure. The budget and the star studded cast is enough to get you tuning into the first episode, but I’ll need to be made to care a little bit more about the characters to keep my eyes fixed on the dark drama.

It seems I’m alone in being concerned though. Everyone, from the cast to the crew, from Showtime to Sky Atlantic, seem unerringly confident about its inevitable success.

“[Penny Dreadful] stands every chance of not only standing alongside some of the greater American series but exceeding them,” said executive producer Sam Mendes at last night’s premiere.

“What you see here is hopefully the beginning of a story that lasts not only weeks but years of our lives in the way great long form television can,” he continued.

Obviously they know something I don’t.

Perhaps they are confident enough in the quality of their drama that they know they can play their cards close to their chest and I’m judging this strange, surreal series too quickly.

And maybe that’s a good enough reason to catch episode two… 

Penny Dreadful starts on 20 May at 9:00pm on Sky Atlantic