By Michael Varrati
In my adventures as a writer and horror enthusiast, I’m proud to say that I’ve wandered into a multitude of spooky locales. From bat-filled caves to the lushly curated gravesite of HP Lovecraft, I’ve traversed the continent to see all manner of creepy ephemera.
Yet, for all the sights I’ve seen and places I’ve been, perhaps the greatest feather in my cap was achieved mere miles from my home in Los Angeles. It was there, located within the bowels of YouTube Space LA, that I stepped foot into Frankenstein’s lab.
Thanks to the innovative team at Pemberley Digital, the good doctor’s digs had arrived on the West Coast in the form of “Frankenstein, MD,” the latest incarnation of Mary Shelley’s classic, made for the digital generation. The product of a partnership between PBS Digital Studios and Pemberley, the show tells the tale of Victoria Frankenstein, a medical student whose vlogging of her experiments charts her path into dark territory and the consequences therein.
A departure from the Austenian fare of Pemberley’s past, “Frankenstein, MD” has taken fans on a dark ride, and has proven to be successful and worthy heir to Shelley’s legacy. Integrating actual science (the production had a scientific advisor for Victoria’s earlier, pre-monster experiments), the show grounded its roots in the realism of the world, delivering an emotional wallop and gathering a mass of fans in the process.
The first time I stepped foot on set of “Frankenstein, MD,” it was merely the second day of shooting. Victoria (Anna Lore) was in the midst of an experiment, and if I recall correctly, Eli (Brendan Bradley) was looking for his pants.
Since that day, I’ve tracked the progress of Victoria’s experimentation, returning on occasion to the set. I’ve seen stitches and sadness, and the rise of a monster. On my last visit, the final day of shooting, the light-hearted nature of those early days has long since dissipated. Victoria’s world is a darker place now, and even as I sip my coffee from my vantage point off-camera, I see a creature lumbering in the shadows. It is the story of “Frankenstein” as it has always been intended: Hope turned to darkness, a dream turned into a nightmare.
As a bystander, it was truly an awe-inspiring thing to watch this progression first hand.
None understand this journey better than Pemberley boss Bernie Su, who has propelled his company to greatness through the understanding that the classics endure due to a continuing relatability. Su and company have previously adapted the works of Austen in the form of “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” and “Emma Approved,” capturing the hearts of viewers everywhere.
During my initial visit, when I asked Su if he had any concerns treading into darker, more gothic territory after living so long in the realm of Austenian propriety, he assured me it was exactly the kind of challenge for which Pemberley had been waiting.
“It’s been reinvigorating for us,” Su said. “Just going systematically through Austen, you run the risk of getting stale. Not that Austen is stale, but trying to go to the same source over and over again, it could feel that way. For this it was very helpful. As far as our audience goes, I think they’ll appreciate it. I’m sure there are people in the audience who were hoping we’d run through Austen, six in a row, in and out. But there’s others who were intrigued by this project and looking to us to do something else.”
Su also suggested that the move into the new genre provided Pemberley an opportunity to up the ante in terms of production, allowing them to flex muscles they previously had been unable to.
“We also have a lot more prop work and effects,” he tells me. “More things are happening on screen than ever before, whereas our shows in the past have been characters talking. While we had characters interacting before, and we still do that, it’s not always just a conversation. Now they’re getting blood tests and doing things in the lab. There’s a lot more busy work. The series is definitely more complicated, even though the series is very similar in format. It’s good for us.”
…and good it certainly has been. With the series wrapping up on Halloween and the possibility of another season in the future (“It’s been discussed,” Su says, slyly), the show has been a considerable success for Pemberley and PBS. Across 23 episodes, it’s garnered more than 1.5 million views and generated an impressive 3.3% engagement rate, according to Tubular Labs.
Furthermore, it has proven that the story of Frankenstein is just as powerful as ever, reaching a whole new audience and forcing them to consider the cause and effect ramifications of pursuing things that are better left alone.
But, as any good horror fan knows, not leaving things alone is the fun of it all. That’s why, in the spirit of Halloween, I offer to you an exclusive roundtable with the cast and crew of “Frankenstein, MD,” featuring a frank discussion about the project and their hopes for future things that go bump in the night.