It’s hard to maintain the scares, or to have any at all apparently.
While watching Penny Dreadful recently, a thought occurred to me — why is this show considered horror? There are no real scares to be found (at least not in the two and a half seasons I’ve watched), the atmosphere, while creepy at times in the first season, is mostly like any other period piece, and the pace has been incredibly slow. Granted, the series has characters from just about all the Victorian horror novels that have fallen into the public domain so it’s horror by default, but just because a duck is dressed like a chicken doesn’t mean it’s not a duck.
Penny Dreadful tries really hard to pretend it’s a horror show by including these characters from its intended genre but, despite it’s promising first season, the show has divulged into the overly plotted claptrap that plagues cable television more often than not these days. In the rush to be the next Sopranos, series that should be fairly straight forward become overly convoluted. Dreadful has ended as of season three so it’s possible that it pulls the loose ends together as it concludes, though considering that the wife and I are midway through the final season I’m not holding out much hope.
The show suffers from the “serious cable drama” syndrome and all the trappings that come with it; it takes itself too seriously, believes that a lone-wolf creator (John Logan) is the answer to everything, and amps up the sex and violence just because it can. Since The Sopranos and The Wire, every pay-cable series tries to be like them, gritty and adult. What the creators of shows like Penny Dreadful and Dexter appear to lack is the tenacity to stick with the script. It seems to me that people who watch Penny Dreadful want horror, so why bother with so much Gothic melodrama. As stupid as True Blood is, at least it has moments of fun and some genuine shock scares. Penny Dreadful settles for glum and glummer.
I have talked before about the inability of horror shows to maintain momentum due to their lack of character development and in this Penny Dreadful is no different. It’s not that the characters are shallow, rather they just aren’t that interesting after a while because nothing changes about them. The same “mysteries” that were present in the first season are still there in the last, and not to the benefit of the story. The reason Supernatural is filming its twelfth season right now is because the audience likes and relates to the characters. Even when one of the episodes falls flat, you are still entertained by the relationships presented. When Penny Dreadful falls flat, which in my opinion is about every other episode, it rarely bounces back due to lack of story development.
As of now Penny Dreadful has a few episodes left to change my mind, and I hope that it does. Perhaps it’s a slow-burn ending that just continues to build, or perhaps my tastes just aren’t in league with what it offers. I really enjoyed the first season though, so I don’t think that’s it. I think it is just the case of a show trying to elevate itself over the source material, and somehow failing to understand what makes the stories of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, etc. so appealing in the first place. It’s not the setting — it’s the characters.
As far as pay cable shows go, I’m still not impressed. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Shield are better than The Wire and The Sopranos could ever dream of being, and Justified is way more fun. The new golden age of television might have started on HBO, but basic cable is beating it at every turn. Sometimes nudity and anachronistic cursing just isn’t enough.
Until next time…