Penny Dreadful: a syncretic masterpiece

I think the reason I enjoyed Penny Dreadful so much is because I have planned to do something similar. I’ve planned to get disparate stories related by some overarching culture or connection and fuse them together into something unique—sometimes faithful, sometimes subversive, something that discusses the issues of the originals and yet raises fresh questions from the unique combination. That’s the goal of a series I plan to write one day. Penny Dreadful does it today.

The series basically follows a spiritualist medium on her adventures through Victorian London—one catch, she also happens to be a devout Catholic. The series combines aspects of Judeo-Christian mythology with Egyptian mythology and, later on, even American Indian mythology and yet somehow manages to keep a fairly coherent lore. To combine these things in such a way that it adds to the story, rather than cheapening it, is very impressive. And I think I know why it succeeds.

It’s incredibly well-researched. There were aspects of Egyptian religion I was very surprised to see in what I initially wrote off as a pop gothic horror. This series doesn’t play with tropes, it subordinates them. And how? By going back to all the original material, rather than basing itself off the heritage of pop cultural references. If all you know are the pop references, you’ll still understand what it’s referring to but you’ll get the sense it knows more about it than you do. And if you know the originals, you’ll be even more impressed when at times it subverts or merges characters and stories to further its own plot.

And that’s perhaps one of the most charming aspects of Penny Dreadful. It takes the stories of the Victorian age and those ages either side of it. It takes the questions those stories dealt with and the unforgettable characters that have made their way into our modern consciousness, and it lets you relive them in part how they were originally meant to be felt. But it doesn’t just explore the sentiments and the questions of the original characters—who’s the bigger monster, Frankenstein or his creation; is the phantom of the opera a misunderstood treasure or does his misunderstanding of kindness make him more toxic than lovable; how good is a woman who’s sold her soul to Satan and how bad is the healer on the edge of the village that doesn’t understand her. It doesn’t just explore these characters and issues episode by episode and across the whole series, it still manages to subordinate these questions to a bigger, an original plot with its own take on morality, growth, redemption, love and even faith.

What I mean is, most series I know that deal with episodic topics—most of them have very little real growth episode to episode. For most series, usually the majority of the episodes are just episodic and a self-contained story with little growth for the main characters, where most of the growth and change happens at the end of a series. Skip 90% of the series and just watch the 2-3 episodes where things actually change and you won’t have missed much. That’s the feeling I get from a lot of TV shows—especially those of the 90’s and early 2000’s that were designed to be aired and watched weekly. Penny Dreadful to me is one of the stars of the binge culture of modern streaming TV—if we can even call it TV anymore. It doesn’t assume you’ll forget what happened last week and maybe missed it altogether, and maybe you’re just half-watching because it’s the best of what’s on at that timeslot anyway. It assumes you’ve sought it out and want to be carried away with an immersive story, and it gives it to you.

And because it takes itself seriously—because it assumes you actually want to watch it and will keep watching it so long as it’s interesting—it invests in itself, and it believes in itself. It invests in making its overarching plot continuous and interesting, and it invests in the small details by doing its research and then, I’m sure, investing time in how best to apply the research. Penny Dreadful is as much historical fiction as are half the works out there—it’s committed to faithfully reconstructing how people felt at this time, and what they were afraid of—even if it mostly explores that through the realm of myth. To me that’s a beautiful reminder of why we study history and when we study history why the stories people told themselves matter so much. They, more than most things that come down from the past, are a window into the souls of those now gone. And so the show builds its richness by taking such valuable windows seriously, peering through them and wondering not only what it would have been like to live through them, but also how they can impact us today.

So go watch it. I generally can’t stand horror and I know it has a horror rating which could put some people off, but don’t worry about it. It has a few shock scenes in the first episode to cater to a horror fan-base but after that, it’s a lot smoother and I reckon even most of those of you like me could probably handle it. I’ve enjoyed it immensely and I’ll recommend it to anyone. And I’m inspired that my similar idea of a well-researched but syncretic approach to stories and the religions that underpin them, could one day take off too. That’s something I plan to strive towards and I hope some of you might join me for that ride when it comes but, in the meantime, definitely check out the masterpiece so ironically named, Penny Dreadful.

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