It’s difficult to review pilots because it’s rare for a pilot to be entirely indicative of what a series is supposed to be about. Often, even in the best pilots, the writer’s hand can be seen, attempting to figure out what this show is as he or she writes it—largely because an idea as a germ is always different than when it’s implemented on the page. Penny Dreadful (a pulpy British fiction) has a tone of somber mystery and fear that settles thick like a fog, though the strings attached to the characters are visible through the occasional rafts of light.

The series is penned by John Logan, writer of Skyfall, The Aviator and Gladiator. This is his first foray into television, which explains the leisurely pace of the pilot. Logan has always been more of a slow burn; most of his films tend to run a little long and he’s skilled enough of a writer that you can rarely feel the run time. The difficulty is that the pilot is an hour long, and too much time is spent on exposition—a plague most commonly seen in pilots and first seasons of television series as they go about building their characters and their world, attempting to establish its thesis statement and, in certain cases, its patois which is a mix of made up jargon and then-current terminologies (“resurrectionists,” “Galvanism,” etc.).

It’s because of this that most of the characters are still only ciphers and the plot is particularly thin. The cast is rounded out by Timothy Dalton, Eva Green (quite the James Bond reunion going on here) and Josh Hartnett, all of whom portray archetypes familiar to the genre—the hardnosed father searching for his daughter, the enigmatic woman, the mysterious man escaping his violent past—and had it not been for their particularly evocative acting done mostly through their eyes, it would come off as boring.

Eva Green’s performance is a standout here, which is a good thing considering she dominated most of the previews and is being pushed as the breakout character of the series. We’re first introduced to her Vanessa Ives as a shaken rail praying in a dead language to Christ on the cross. We’re led to believe this is a flashback to when she was a weak person especially compared to the knowing, bold and unafraid Vanessa who gleefully picks apart Hartnett’s Ethan Chandler in a scene that recalls shades of Green’s first meeting with James Bond as Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. We learn that the fearful praying and the hallucinations are part of her daily life. It would lead the audience to consider if the composure and confidence she exudes in front of Chandler and Murray was shtick, but it leads us more to believe that the fear is what drives her to keep going. She’s the one keeping the boys motivated because she has motivations of her own.

There is something greater at play here both in plot and character, that much is clear throughout the episode. There are Atavistic creatures with hieroglyphics written inside their bodies, grand soliloquies on obsession, need, and the small but important difference between life and death—that last one by Harry Treadaway is certainly worth the price of admission.

Logan also teases the later episodes by dropping names like Dorian Gray and Mina Harker that are quick enough to feel organic minus the last minute reveal that Treadaway’s nameless and aloof doctor is actually – gasp! – Victor Frankenstein.

Certainly another thing Penny Dreadful has going for it is its use of vampires. They aren’t these brooding androgynous romantic figures we have been inundated with since the late 90s, but animalistic savages that look closer to the Fluke Man from The X-Files than Edward Cullen from Twilight. While the use of the name Mina Harker is an overt tease to the later inclusion of Dracula, the fact that Logan has done everything he could to imply that what we’re seeing might be familiar yet new is enough to keep us invested.

The problem therein is another problem that pilots like Penny Dreadful often succumb to being: too much at once. There is a great bit going on in the episode but the scenes rarely come off as anything more than teases that ask us to keep watching because “Don’t worry, something’s coming!” and that something is, apparently, everything in the public domain.

Much of this can sound negative, but the pilot is certainly watchable, and at times even enjoyable. As I said, pilots are rarely indicative of what is a series is or supposed to be. While Logan threw everything at the wall, there is enough stuck to it to make you interested in at least one or two things to get you to the next episode, which a series is supposed to do in the first place. In calling itself Penny Dreadful, the series is already aware of its melodramatic roots, but where The Following has no interest in being anything more than what it is, this John Logan series, as we have seen already, is going to try and be more.

Read more about: