Category Archives: media

Penny Dreadful: A Retrospective


So it should be old news by now that after wrapping its third season, the curtain falls and the lights go up on Penny Dreadful.  There is something cool and liberating about these limited run series (limited run in that they tell a finite story rather than dragging things out for 6-7 seasons of 20 episodes each).

One of the things I’ve begun to experience with Walking Dead specifically but even Game of Thrones is the futility of investment.  When characters you care about die in the narrative, characters that you’ve become emotionally invested in, it shakes the narrative to its core.  Now, so far, Game of Thrones has done well to build on those deaths.  (Crap!  How do I do this without spoilers?) The executions, the assassinations, the atrocities, they still reverberate throughout the narrative.  Characters who died in the first novel/1st season are still impacting the story as it moves forward.  In that sense, you’re investment in the character isn’t completely lost.  Walking Dead is a different matter.  The writers may claim to be doing dramatic service to the narrative, promoting the idea that no one being safe raises the tension of each season.  Yes, I suppose it does.  But when a character dies on Walking Dead, their impact is gone after 2-3 episodes.  It becomes spectacle; a gimmick.  This is especially true of last season’s finale.  And its become old hat and annoying.  It’s like profanity.  If you curse like a sailor, those words have no impact.  But the guy who never curses swears once and EVERYONE is suddenly paying attention.  So when the body count in a show reaches a certain level, it doesn’t impact you in the same way anymore.  At some point, your perspective changes from who is going to die to who is going to live.  At that point, you stop investing in anything tangible about the narrative.

What was that Stalin said?  One death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.  (At least a lot of people attribute that quote to him.)

Wait.  Stop with the Stalin quotes.  What does ANY of this have to do with Penny Dreadful?!

Sorry.  Let me put my soapbox away.

The point is that a short, defined narrative makes it easier to do the former and blunts the latter.  If you only have 10 episodes to tell your story, it’s easier to have a death or twist reverberate through the narrative longer.

Alright, so let’s get to Penny Dreadful.  First, some spoiler space for those waiting for the DVD collection to binge watch the season.  You folks just go ahead and bookmark this and come back later, k?

spoiler space…

Still with me?  Ok.

First up, I thought the season was incredible.  At least as good as last season.  I really applaud the way they handled Renfield and Dracula’s spawn.  When they revealed Dracula’s identity in episode 3, I wasn’t shocked, but I was disappointed for Vanessa Ives.  Ethan’s storyline wraps up nicely.  The Creature gets a ray of sunshine, only to have it tragically jerked out from under him.  Man, that guy can’t catch a break.  Doctor Jeckyll doesn’t really get to come into his own, but I liked the spin they put on him. Yes, it feels like by season’s end, everyone has turned a corner in character development.  Except…

Vanessa Ives.

Her fate is the lone, big, fat, red, nasty, pussy pimple on the whole season.  It isn’t bad enough to ruin the season for me, but it is enough to make me throw up my hands and say, “really?!

Now I haven’t seen any of the first season aside from 1 and 1/2 episodes.  I saw Van Helsing get knifed by a street thug and Eva Green get her first solo episode where we wax poetic for an hour about how she betrayed her friend and spiraled into the grip of the devil.  Pure Victorian Melodrama.  Also, pure crap!  If that’s what the show was about, I didn’t need to watch it.  Goodbye.

I did give it a second chance with the Season 2 and, without Vanessa being the sole focus of the show, I came along for the ride.  That’s what you get for trying to jump in mid-season.

But it’s been my complaint about Vanessa all this time.  Her sense of self-loathing just rolls on like a Sherman tank ignoring any obstacle in its path.  And it’s damn irritating.  “Oh, poor me.  I did something bad once and now I am irredeemably evil.  No, don’t try to tell me otherwise.  Lalalala!  I’m not listening to you!

But you helped feed poor orphans in the London underground? Nope.  Sorry.  Evil.

But you were there when the creature needed a shoulder to cry on.  Evil.

You help send evil things back to hell on a regular basis.  You’d love to think that but…evil.

But isn’t forgiveness a tenant of Chri… Ok, would you stop already?  Don’t make me prove how evil I am.  I speak witch!

So after 8 episodes of gearing up to put the screws to Dracula, with everyone behind her, knowing that anything less is to doom mankind, one monologue by our sharp dressed villain and Vanessa “accepts herself” for the evil, self-loathing bitch that she is.  Really?!  

Now you can say that she did it for love, for acceptance, for passion.  But no.  Vanessa did it because at her core she is a selfish, self-loathing lemming whose courage and determination amount to exactly shit when the chips are down.

Which is to say her decision feels totally forced and out of character to me.

And since her decision could be construed as directly related to the death of the Creature’s son, I was terribly disappointed that Mr. Claire was not the one to rip her fool head off.  No, instead we get Ethan who proves once again that Vanessa left her spine in episode 7 somewhere.  Because honestly, if her sacrificing herself so evil couldn’t win was the right move, someone should have suggested that in Season 2.

And this twist of fate is doubly annoying because it robbed me (!!!!!) of a proper finale with the Dracula v the Wolf of God.  Yes, I wanted to see Ethan wolf out and throw down with Dracula.  I wanted them to paint the walls!  Who didn’t?!  But no, Vanessa is the reason we can’t have nice things.  And as the curtain falls on her death, she becomes the story of Penny Dreadful, and that cheapens the whole run.  Thanks a lot, John Logan.

Other than that, it was a great ride.

What did you think?

Penny Dreadful

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.*

new-penny-dreadful-poster-shows-a-spooky-optical-illusion-868986I’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.



The Bastard Executioner, Second Impressions

The reviews are in.  The critics have spoken.



An Epic Journey!

Who are these people?!  Are they watching the same show I am?  What is their frame of reference? NBC sitcoms?

With a keen understanding that a lot of pilots are crap, I did eventually make my way through the muck that is the second episode of the Bastard Executioner.  Thankfully, the gore was toned down bit (and I mean A BIT, like the difference between 98° and 100° F).  Between severed limb man and cut off her nose to spite her face…yeah, no real indication that the series is anything but an excuse to slice off limbs with swords on TV.

I won’t bore any of you with the details or spoilers.  By now the series is four episodes in and people either like it or don’t.  My serial-genre programming time is a bit too precious these days to really bother with shows full of unlikeable characters (speaking of which, anyone catch that finale of Masters of Sex?).  As far as the Bastard Executioner goes, I’m having a hard enough time getting over the fact that the deceased evil baron’s wife is still in power.  Am I that ignorant of patriarchal medieval culture?  Maybe.  And if I am, I really can’t abide a show of this quality making me feel more dumb for watching.

So two episodes in we will be ending our “epic journey” with this “bold” and “imaginative” show and go off seeking other means of escapism.

I will leave you with a quote from Willa Paskin of The Slate:

The Bastard Executioner is monstrously fetid, a mound of gorgonzola stuffed into a dead catfish’s gullet, smoked in sulfur, doused with heavy cream and left to rot for weeks inside a port-o-potty in full sun.

Yes.  That does sum things up quite nicely.

BTW, did anyone notice Sleepy Hollow work up from the dead last week?  Fingers crossed that they can make a turn around from last season’s hit or miss storytelling.  I’ve seen the season premier and will have something to say about it soon.

Bastard Executioner, First Impressions

So last week saw the premier of FX’s new show, the Bastard Executioner.  The previews I’d seen were pretty vague, but I figured it was worth a stretch on the DVR,

The short version: Someone has been watching Game of Thrones and learning all the wrong lessons.

The basic premise is pretty pedestrian: 14th century England. A knight dies on the battlefield but is healed by an angel of God and told to lay down the sword.  He takes up the quiet life of a farmer in a small village until the evil Baron forces him and his neighbors to take up arms (and hoods) and discourage the tax collectors.  Naturally, this plan eventually goes array (you think?) and the Baron sends men to the village to slaughter all the women and children (including the knight’s wife and unborn child).  In shock, anger, and…surprise (?), the knight once again takes up the sword and swears revenge.

I could go on, but that gets us into spoilery territory.  But, c’mon!  Does anyone else see this problem with this premise?

In the first 15 minutes, we are witness to a low budget interpretation of Braveheart, the bad guy finishing off on his young bride, and the bad guy taking a dump while consulting with his henchman.  Here’s the worst of it: 90% of this stuff should be regulated to off-camera business.  The opening credit sequence is a montage of medieval torture devices, smeared with blood and gore. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, but watching the slaughter of women and children on screen doesn’t make me hate the villain, it makes me wonder what sad perversions the writers are attempting to feed the audience.  Blood and circuses, hold the circus.  No, we have to get down in the muck to show how adult and gritty we are.

I get it.  Game of Thrones is big on HBO.  It’s a gritty, bloody, and doesn’t flinch from the…unpleasantness of the age.  But as ugly as Thrones can be, those writers know that for the unpleasantness to be truly unpleasant, you have to hold something back.  It’s like profanity.  In a book or movie riddled with profanity, you don’t blink an eye with someone drops the F-bomb.  But Indiana Jones says “shit” once and he has your attention.  Because that’s the only bad word (in English, anyway) in the whole 2 hours of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

So here, in the Bastard Executioner, the distasteful, vile, and bloody are heaped on us with abandon.  And I’m sorry, that doesn’t make me want to stay in your world.  It doesn’t make me hate your bad guy.  It doesn’t make me respect your hero.  In fact, it does the exact opposite.  Now, maybe I’m asking too much, but I don’t think so.  In the past two decades, FX has dished out some of my favorite shows. The Shield was masterful.  Justified was a gem.

You’ve shown me a vile and bloody place, and then expect me to be outraged when vile and bloody things happen.

Oh, and the villain’s consultant buggering the piss boy (more like early 20s, don’t worry – just a nod to the rest of you History of the World, Part 1 fans!)?  Really?  I thought we’d gotten past the whole “homosexual = EVIL” thing.  Or wait, is this another way of showing how grown up we are?

Now, could the Bastard Executioner turn into a decent show…sure.  The first episode is a pilot.  And no bad pilot has EVER gone on to become a good show, right?  Episode two is waiting on the DVR now.  But just like the Baron’s latrine aid, I feel like I’m going to end up holding a cloth full of royal shit.