Tag Archives: media

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.




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.