Or, A Rosy Review of Penny Dreadful season One and a Black Review of Penny Dreadful seasons Two and Three.
This isn’t exactly a post focusing on novel writing, although everything I write about in this post can be incorporated. It’s something I find fundamental to good storytelling: character development and steadfastness.
I get a lot of recommendations for storytelling: some are books, some are movies, some are poems, TV series. Today I want to focus on television series and in some senses, movie series. Particularly the anti-hero series Penny Dreadful off Showtime, currently available on Netflix.
I could go into comparative analysis with a lot of series. One of the quickest ways for a series to lose my interest is weak characterization. By weak characterization, I mean the characters either have no depth or development (as in, don’t exist outside of the storyline), or the characters lose their convictions to assist the forward momentum of plot. They lack steadfastness, or proper plot to explain such a fundamental, whole change.
Good writers never, ever bend their characters for the sake of a message, because in doing so, you lose your message, you lose your backbone.
Season 1: Season of Good Episodes and Balanced Characters
I often wonder if the first season of a new series is written by one group of writers–highly paid and with a firm understanding of the language of story–while the subsequent seasons are written by poorer and poorer writers. Or, the Network puts tighter and tighter deadlines on the script. Or belts on the budget. Or a combination thereof.
In this season the characters were dynamic, self-contained, full of conviction. Vanessa Ives was plagued by a decision she made when she was a child, hunted and haunted by psychological trauma and Lucifer himself. Ethan Chandler was a sharp-shooting cowboy who knew little more than how to hit a target from any distance within eyeshot, and how to be a steadfast, good person. Sir Malcolm hated his adopted daughter Vanessa because of her decision, and held stubbornly to that hate throughout the first season. Victor Frankenstein was headstrong and a foolish zealot, Dorian Gray never wanted to be bored, etc.
I’ll focus on the first three, because they’re the backbone of the series.
Vanessa saw spiders come out of her crucifix, her symbol was spiders, she walked as a mesmerist, and she knew magic. A whole episode was dedicated to her torture and abuse and subsequent possession by the devil, his control over her, his ownership of her. An entire episode. She, seeking redemption from her father, forced to relive her poor decisions when she was young. She was powerful, with skill in the ways of cursed magic, tortured and beautiful and strange, doing things to other mesmerists to call them out, destroy them, find the enemy vampire (the focus of the first season’s story arc).
She was fleshed out, a tortured and terrible person fighting to be good.
Her father, Sir Malcolm, constantly pushed her away and denied her possession. The crux of this series focused on the groups coming together to fight a common enemy, and constantly almost falling apart. The man away from his family, losing a son in Africa and unable to bury him, seeking a daughter that was taken by a vampire, vainly hoping he could save her while hating the daughter he had.
He was fleshed out, a savage man who ran from his family his entire life on safari, learning to be ruthless and careless about human life. A disagreeable monster, but somewhat understandably so.
And Chandler, with a secret past, secret history, secret everything. I saw through the guise as soon as I finished the first episode with him in it: he was to be saved for season two. He’d have no flesh, he’d have little development; he was eye candy and a symbol of righteousness. His weakness was having too many secrets and seeming a little too guarded of those secrets. He sat beside a dying prostitute, loved her as respectfully and as kindly as an old-school cowboy. All cowboy.
Climax happens, goal succeeded, Vanessa beats her possession but didn’t overcome her earlier disaster, Sir Malcolm comes to terms with his vampire daughter, and Chandler helps.
Season 2: Season of Vanessa version 2
Everything changes. Vanessa no longer sees spiders (even though there’s no reason for her not to?), and instead sees scorpions from her crucifix. She is suddenly a witch with witch powers and always has been. People call her The Scorpion. All of her skill from the previous season vanishes to where situations that could have happened in the first season to quick resolution, show up in the second season and she’s wholly unprepared. She knows of a place to hide, somewhere in the moor, and Chandler follows. Where she recounts her cool witchiness and learned-ness.
Sir Malcolm loves Vanessa, treats her like a daughter, and all his stubborn, ruthless pride evaporates from his personality. Never again does he slip into the savagery, even though he’s lived his whole life–to great success–with that demeanor. No more anger toward random people. No more anger, even though he finds himself in places where it would benefit his survivability. Instead, he is a man of logical, rational thought, of high education and breeding and all of his experiences abroad simply vanish. He is a homebody, there to protect his house from an onslaught of witches. He loves his home. He has always loved his home. Why would he ever leave?
Queue thoughts of 1984.
Oh, and Chandler is a werewolf. Always has been. Fortunately he only goes feral once a month, like some man-period on steroids, and returns to “normal.” He’s still a deadeye shot, but his guns are oddly missing most of the time. He is a source of stability for Vanessa, promises to stand by her side forever, and then at the end of the season, runs away a weakling. I find his werewolfiness a waste of energy, because he has no control and its happens so seldom. But they pump it up by calling him a “Hound of God” or some such. Luckily, he’s attacked on his man-period day and fucks the whole mess of them up. Still, all cowboy except for the Werewolf days. No hint of Anything else. Nothing.
Season 3: Season of Chandler Closing Loose Ends
A few things change. Vanessa is no longer The Scorpion, and there is no mention of it. She is not a mesmerist. She is not a witch. She is simply Strong, Feminist Vanessa. She has a second possession episode where she relives time in an asylum where she meets Lucifer being all dickish and introduces a new character, Dracula, as apparently being stronger than Lucifer. She has no power. She has no strength. All of her ability, her everything, gone gone gone. And she simply gives herself up to Dracula. Why? Because Strong, Feminist Vanessa.
Sir Malcolm hunts Chandler in America’s West, meets other people season 1 Sir Malcolm would separate himself from, leaves his favorite, only daughter he fawned over in Season 2…
Half Navajo (where was this the past two seasons!?) Chandler goes to his father’s house to die (character development), is saved at the last second, hates a Navajo man then instantly loves him because he’s his native american “Father” (and for the sake of suspense), back and forth and back and forth like nobody knows what they’re doing anymore. A witch from season 2 tries to convince him he’s such a horrible person, so evil. He says, “I’m done being a good guy!” Even though there’s no reason for him to think such a way: no major event in the past two seasons would make him think this way. Yes, he killed a friend when he went Werewolf, but he was trapped. He has very, very little reason to just change.
Sir Malcolm saves Chandler, Chandler realizes he has friends and is a good person a after all (golly gee shucks!) Chandler pines about leaving Vanessa, Sir Malcolm finds out Vanessa is in trouble…
Everything for plot.
If an observer has to rationalize out why characters are different from season to season, and forgive the characters for being entirely different each season, the writing is weak. These three seasons could have been awesome if the writers stuck to the characters’ personalities instead of trying to bend them around themes like Feminism is Great! And Your Past Catches Up To You Eventually! And Dracula Made Me Wet Because Swoon. And Feminism Won’t Beat Dorian Gray! No.
Vanessa Season 1: Unparalleled in power, Mesmerist and Occultist, because that was what was needed to get to the climax. She needs no man: she is strong. Because: badass. Vanessa Season 2: Powerful Witch with a Terrible Reputation known all around as The Scorpion, can read witch-spells and sacrifices easily and often for her purpose, because that was what was needed to get to the climax. She needs Chandler: Chandler makes her strong. Because: humanity, she isn’t an Occultist anymore. Vanessa Season 3: Weak, regular person Vanessa who has no power and is unable to function without her friends, because that was what was needed to get to the climax. No Scorpion. She can do nothing on her own but ask people questions and for help: she is weak. Because: Dracula is cool and couldn’t touch Season 1 or 2 Vanessa, so let’s change her to nothing.
I could do this with all three characters, and other characters as well. In fact, the only characters who have stayed true to their convictions are Frankenstein’s Monster and Dorian Gray. Gray gets bored? He finds something new. Period. It’s solid. Monster keeps seeking humanity? Keeps becoming more human. Period. It’s solid. It’s good. They’re secondary characters.
If you can’t write a three season arc without changing major attributes of your characters, write it better. Do not go the cheap way out, do not go the weak way out. This is not good writing. Other aspects of the story MUST prop this poor writing up. Some examples of what must prop: visualization of the scenery; extra characters to fill in the missing attributes of existing characters; over-the-top fighting and scenes of violence; Shyamalanic twists that nobody asked for; extra storylines to fill in the spaces of weak writing.
George R. R. Martin fleshes out all his storylines. He does not have more to take your focus off the other, more crappy stories. I mean, maybe he does. I might have to ask him next time I see him.
“But Chris. This is just escapist television. I watch it to have fun. And I have fun watching this series. Who cares?”
We must elevate. Our low expectations create low product. When we raise our expectations, we raise the quality of product. This is how we make change in this country.
It is and it isn’t “just escapist” television. We, as writers, as artists, have an obligation to elevate art. Otherwise we are simply word-peddlers, communication savants, boss-appealers. Heck, the premise of Penny Dreadful focuses on a series of fictional victorian characters, from books: the series already has an established mythology! The series itself mimics elevated art, and churns out a much lower quality product. This is literally a backward trend.
“People want that.” Some do. And the world is full of base “fun” product. I think we should start somewhere. And I will continue to pick this idea apart until it starts catching on.
I’m not saying this is unacceptable. I’m saying this is why I do not like most TV series, why I ignore or even bash generally accepted “great” television. It is escapist. It is throwaway. I find little art here.
Subsequently, this is why I loved Batman VS. Superman. The writers kept to their guns, took the characters’ ideologies to the screaming edge, and watched the fireworks. I’m not saying it didn’t have its flaws as a story. I’m saying, while focusing on the topic of this entry, that entry also focused on the same.
I crave actual art. Actual storytelling. Actual elevation. What’re your thoughts?