About two months ago or so, I found out about a new horror show that really piqued my interest. I’ve been an avid fan of American Horror Story since day one, and who doesn’t love a good period piece? Give me provocative scares and a time when men wore vests on the regular. American Horror Story: The Gilded Age or perhaps simply Victorian Horror Story would be right up my alley. Well, neither one of those is coming to a TV network near you, but something close enough is on its way: Penny Dreadful. First off, what is a penny dreadful? They were actually an early form of pop fiction: 19th century small, serial publications with sensationalist material, geared toward working-class youth and costing only, you guessed it, a penny. The genre has lent its name to this upcoming Showtime series, a period horror show also set in the 19th century. Let’s take a peek at the trailer below. Warning: this looks to be a show extra heavy on the horror, not for the faint of heart.
How awesome does that look?! I am super stoked. The horror fan in me is giddy about the all-encompassing nature of the project: vampires, demons, mummies, Frankenstein’s monster, mediums, Dorian Gray, they got it all! Artistically and aesthetically it looks totally on point—the setting/sets and ambiance are superbly chilling, and the costuming is stunningly gorgeous. Look at all those waistcoats and peacoats and petticoats! Perfection.
I’m curious to see how representation plays out. There certainly is a strong female lead, Vanessa Ives, played by Eva Green, and what I think is kind of extra cool about her is that she is era-authentic strong. I’m never, ever against a female character swinging a broadsword in any time period, but Vanessa appears to be some sort of psychic or medium, an arena in which women actually historically flourished in during the Victorian times. The occult, and mediumship in particular at this time, was an area where women could rise, entirely on their own merit, to a level of prominence and power completely equal to that of their male peers in the field, without any connection whatsoever to a man. It will be really neat to see that acknowledged and explored. As far as racial representation, we only have one character of color, and he does not seem to be super prominent. Moreover, I actively worry because historically, representations of race from Western points of view during the 19th century were utterly filled with thinking that was colonialist at best, downright racist at worst. Tread carefully, Penny Dreadful.
A final thought—I recently added a new word to my geek vocabulary: grimdark. Grimdark is the consequence of when a show aims for “darker and edgier”, either in respect to previous seasons or just in respect to typical TV standards, but goes too far. An example would be Teen Wolf’s descent from campy teen horror film chic at its beginnings to the never-ending psychologically damaging nightmare that was Season 3B. And Penny Dreadful, my friends, looks hella grimdark. In fact, I wonder if it will in fact prove too grimdark for the average viewer. In comparison, I would say American Horror Story for the most part very much lies within grimdark-land as well, but it manages to occasionally find a release from the tension. In addition to its shocking, offensive brand of horror, it is known for its sense of campiness, and often has brief moments of humor to give much needed breaks from the uncomfortable terrors, whether it’s the whole cast singing and dancing to “The Name Game” (albeit in a hallucination) in Season 2, or Myrtle Snow and her frequently absurdist, but always phenomenal, way with words in Season 3. I’m having a hard time seeing how humor or any kind of levity would fit in at all in Penny Dreadful. I want a show that scares me, but I don’t want a show that leaves me rocking myself back and forth with all the lights on, praying for the dawn.
The show premieres May 11th, so it’s coming soon! While you quiver with anticipation, check out the official site and this super cool production blog. You should also check out these amazing character posters, because I’m obsessed with promotional photography for TV shows. Are you all excited as I am about Penny Dreadful?