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Penny Dreadful should be your summer television fling

A still from Penny Dreadful
A still from Penny Dreadful
Courtesy: Showtime
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

For the last couple of years (and continuing this fall when NBC premieres Constantine) networks have taken stab after stab into the horror genre. FX struck a nerve with American Horror Story, as did AMC with Walking Dead and NBC with Hannibal.

The new kid on the block is Showtime's bloody, pulpy, and highly enjoyable Penny Dreadful. Named for the cheap thrill novels consumed by 19th Century Brits, Dreadful is (so far) a beautiful mess of sex, murder, and grisly gore wrapped around the bones of a classic vampire story. If you aren't one of the 2.3 million people who watched for the premiere, here are some reasons why you should start.

It strikes a perfect tone

Horror/gothic shows have a harder time determining what kind of tone they want to set and how much self-awareness they want to convey than do more straight-laced prestige dramas. If they play things too straight, they risk becoming dull and humorless (see: those governor episodes from The Walking Dead). But relying too much on camp and scenery chomping, like the last season of American Horror Story did, can wind up weakening the show's plot and frustrating attempts to flesh out characters. That isn't the case here.

The show, created by screenwriter John Logan (Skyfall), is set in Victorian London and revolves around the disappearance of a young girl at the hands (and possibly fangs) of vampires and the measures her father, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), will take to find her.

But the show has enough else going on that there's no immediate rush or desire to get back to finding Sir Malcolm's daughter. The show also spends time with a tender Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) bent on being a good dad, and an eerily beautiful Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), who gets his sexual kicks from bedding women dying of tuberculosis. As a viewer, I'd love to see Ms. Murray rescued, but I really don't mind spending time in Gray's warped world before she is.

Murray's allies — the mysterious medium sidekick Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and hired gun Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) — round out this splendid and distracting (in the best way possible) cast. The show doesn't tell you much about the nature of Ives and Murray's (thus far) platonic partnership, which is arguably the lifeline of the show. All you know is that, for some reason, this seemingly sensible gentleman has decided to trust a slightly unhinged mystic with his life.

As in any good horror show, there's a pervasive sense that yet unseen beasts may be lurking in the shadows, waiting to be fought and brought into the light. I've already got my hunches as to which literary fiends and ghouls will come out to play with the monsters we've already seen.

There's something fearless about Dreadful. Mud runs through the show's veins, and its writers, directors and producers aren't afraid to take us to the dark, flip the switch to extreme camp, and trust us enough to leave us hanging there long enough to figure out the difference.

Critics are taking notice, with the series garnering an 82 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 71 on Metacritic.  "The pilot episode is particularly fun, with blooms and spasms of florid writing (don’t worry, the show is in on the joke) that introduce enough gothic intrigue to last a full season and beyond," Richard Lawson writes at Vanity Fair.

So far, Dreadful has balanced the nuance of seriousness and fright with Victorian camp pretty well in its first few episodes— enough to get you hooked and hope that it continues for a few more. Here's a look at the season:

Regular people like it too

Taste is taste and sometimes there's a major disconnect between what people are watching and what critics are writing about. That said, Penny Dreadful has been off to a great start. Sunday's premiere night grabbed 1.444 million viewers, and over 900,000 subscribers sampled the series before Sunday, Variety reports. That's 2.3 million viewers, a number that outclasses Homeland's and Masters of Sex's series premieres on Showtime.

The show also benefits from the fact that the other big new horror show this season — WGN America's Salem — premiered to strong ratings, providing further evidence that shows like Dreadful have an healthy audience to play to.

Eva Green is spellbinding

While a lot of articles about Dreadful have trumpeted the return of reluctant heartthrob Josh Hartnett, it's really Eva Green that is the motor which makes this show run. Green has been on a camp tear lately— she was last seen upstaging all that pore-less man beef as Artemisia in the homoerotic bro-pleaser 300: Rise of an Empire.

And she seems to be upping the ante with her performance as Ives in Dreadful. Playing a medium who occasionally gets possessed by vindictive, cussing spirits allows Green to show off some physicality — completely with bone-snapping neck twists and crunching body-arching — to contrast with her pensive stares. And the effect, even when Green is silent and perfectly still, is something that you don't want to watch alone in the dark:


Eva Green being frightening. Courtesy: Showtime

There's going to be room on your DVR

Sunday's television schedule is an embarrassment of riches. But your DVR will be catching a break soon as a lot of good shows are wrapping up their seasons soon. The Good Wife wraps up on Sunday and the first half of Mad Men's final season finishes the week after…meaning you can no longer use the excuse of too much good television as the reason you're not giving Dreadful (or any new show) a try.

Penny Dreadful airs at 10 p.m. on Sundays on Showtime. The series premiere is available online here.

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