‘Penny Dreadful’ Review: A Lovely, Lurid Study of Life and Death

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Showtime’s latest explores monsters, men and a very dangerous woman

“There is only one worthy goal for scientific exploration: Piercing the tissue that separates life from death.”

So says a young scientist in the first episode of Showtime’s magnificent new drama, “Penny Dreadful.” He is addressing Timothy Dalton, who plays Sir Malcolm Murray, an explorer plumbing London’s depths in search of his lost daughter.

See video: A ‘Penny Dreadful’ Sex Tour: Where Victorians Picked Up Hookers and Bought Porn 

The quest parallels one in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” and it’s just one of the ways the show’s new characters intermingle with ones from Victorian literature. Eva Green plays Vanessa Ives, a tortured woman joining in Murray’s quest. Josh Hartnett is American gunslinger Ethan Chandler. Billie Piper is Irish immigrant Brona Croft, and Harry Treadaway plays the scientist, whom we’ll soon realize we know.

Devoted readers will also remember Reeve Carney’s Dorian Grey, the libertine from Oscar Wilde’s novel, who stays ageless even as his portrait grows hideous.

Also read: ‘Penny Dreadful’ Trailer: Josh Hartnett and Eva Green in a World of Sex, Blood and Monsters

This is, like Alan Moore’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” a clever exploitation of characters in the public domain. But creator John Logan‘s story also thrives on its own. “Penny Dreadful” is a beguiling examination of that space between life and death.

Murray investigates a colony of insect-like undead. The scientist hopes to use electricity to recharge the departed. Opium addicts search for something between awareness and oblivion. Grey has learned not to age.

Ives apparently crosses over during a séance in the second episode. Green’s performance is the acting equivalent of Nicki Minaj’s verse on “Monster:” a full-scale scene-jacking powered by a furious run of accents.

All of the characters, in one way or another, hope to pierce the tissue. Ives prays desperately to Jesus, the man who practically invented resurrection. But being born again is the harder of the two ways to cross.

The easier is death. “Penny Dreadful” is full of killers, specifically hunters. The show is set in 1891, soon after Jack the Ripper apparently packed up his knives. But the new hunters are even more brutal. They may not be human.

What are they? It’s one of the mysteries of “Penny Dreadful.” But exploring such a carnival of curiosities, you’ll be in no rush for answers.

“Penny Dreadful” premieres Sunday at 10/9c.