As of last night we are two episodes into the third season of Penny Dreadful. There a number of shows I watch to mine for ideas and inspiration: Supernatural, Salem, Sleepy Hollow…and Penny Dreadful has quickly become the one that is the most fun and consistently worthwhile. If you aren’t watching it, you should be, or at least giving it a try.*
I’m not going to waste my time babbling on with what the show is about. Either you’ve heard of it by now, or a quick Google search will do it more justice than I can here.
I’ll admit, I was skeptical. I tried jumping in about three episodes before the season 1 finale and found the whole thing dreadfully ponderous. An hour spent dredging through Vanessa Ives’ past is really just that – ponderous. An I would have given up on it. I waited until the second season and tried again. That’s how I learned the first of two important things to consider with Penny Dreadful. It isn’t what the characters have done that makes them interesting, it’s how they are reacting to the here and now that is.
The second thing to keep in mind is that PD is a slow burn. It slowly builds, layer upon layer, until the whole thing is poised to come crushing down on you. It doesn’t really go for the cliffhanger ending, at least not very often. Sure, it has it’s big reveals but that’s not where it excels. It get’s its hooks into you slowly, while you are looking the other way. Then, masterfully, jerks the line taunt. Yeah, that sounds suitably purple. It is modeled after Victorian Melodrama, after all.
But the show really excels at building an atmosphere of tension, of both subtle details and truly grotesque moments. It doesn’t really go for schlock, and embraces the genre instead of mocking it. John Logan and his writers are proving phenomenal craftsmen. And that’s why you, the Game Master, should be watching it. Study the nuances, make notes about how the build scenes, and then unleash this into your game. For Witch Hunter, which threads the needle between horror and swashbuckling, heroic drama, there is plenty of material here to lift straight from the show. Hecate Pool and her daughters scream to be wrapped into the Dark Coven! If you are a fan of Savage Worlds and the Rippers setting, every scene is is dripping with material for your game.
Compare it to the rest of the field:
- Supernatural (CW): a show past its prime that’s now doing a devil of a job suppressing any real sense of character development while the current rogues gallery continues the same dance they’ve been performing for the past 4 seasons.
Saving Grace: The actors are still having fun and it shows.
- Sleepy Hollow (FOX): a show that, for some reason, doesn’t want to embrace what makes it unique: the secret history of the American Revolution.
Saving Grace: it’s cool to see a mainstream genre show with a cast that isn’t lily white.
- Salem (WGN): a show so concerned with being edgy and adult that they’ve managed to bludgeon and kill any lingering sense of sympathy the audience has for the main characters. You can’t even really call it a show about shades of gray – only grades of black. (Sorry, but they lost me with the long, lingering scene of the girl bleeding out last season – I’m not going back to that well again).
Saving Grace: The odd, weird depiction of witchcraft.
Maybe its just that I’m getting old and crotchety. I don’t have endless time to keep up with a dozen TV shows, especially the one’s my wife isn’t interested in. I want the most bang for my one-hour viewing time. I want to be motivated by the story telling. Right now, Penny Dreadful is doing that for me. Check it out.
Penny Dreadful Season 3 Premier Episode on YouTube
*The Brace of Pistols Helpful Guide to Watching a New Serial: Give any new show four episodes. If, by the end of the fourth episode you aren’t hooked by the characters and storyline, you can walk away knowing the show clearly wasn’t for you. It helps if you start at the beginning (or even the beginning of a season), but it isn’t necessary.