This is quite a slow burn of a show. If you watch it too erratically it gets a bit confusing and rather fades into the background. However if you take a run at it as a box set, it’s really very easy to get pulled into the series and find yourself watching multiple episodes back to back.
The world of Penny Dreadful is a wonderfully rich one, drawing concepts and also specific characters from across gothic literature and throwing them together in a world of magic and monsters. You don’t have to be familiar with the works that are being put together, nothing is quite like the original and they are all manipulated to come together under Penny Dreadful’s own mythology. It’s more about the themes of the stories than the specific details.
The strands of characters weave together, waxing and waning so that although there is a main thread of narrative running through, each episode focusses on particular characters or combinations. These vary throughout, so it never feels old or tired and you continually get to see characters in different situations or from different points of view, adding further depth to the already rich tapestry.
The tone of the whole series is very particular and completely committed to. It’s gothic, fantastical and melodramatic. The cinematography is rather on the dark side, but look through the gloom and there’s a beautiful richness to the period locations and sets. The characters are similarly gothic with big emotions and a tendency to speechify, but at the same time they are all grounded in truth. Everything may be played large, but underlying it all are simple human emotions such as fear, loneliness and vengeance. There are also (thankfully!) moments of levity and acknowledgement of the situation. The cast ably raises to the challenge and deliver the drama, melodrama and heart impressively.
Unfortunately it’s easy to lose a lot of that if you don’t immerse yourself in the series. I watched most of the series in two sittings, within a few days, but then had to have a couple of weeks break before watching the last episode. I really struggled to re-engage and didn’t manage to sink back into the same level of engagement. Instead the melodrama was just a bit much and it seemed even silly in places.
So, watch it in bulk and throw yourself into it! It’ll make Game of Thrones look like a children’s book.