CULTURE, CHRONOLOGY, AND CONTEMPT IN CONTEMPORARY TV

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Showtime has announced that it would air Penny Dreadful for another season. This gives me a chance to air one of my pet peeves about modern TV and movies, a peeve that this series aggravates often.

For those who are not familiar with it, Penny Dreadful is a Gothic horror series revolving around an attempt to rescue a young women who has been kidnapped by vampires or demons. Eva Green plays Vanessa Ives, a reserved and enigmatic aristocrat. Timothy Dalton plays Dr. Malcolm Murray, a former African explorer, and the father of the kidnap victim. Josh Hartnett plays Ethan Chandler, a brash young American familiar with weapons and at ease with violence, who is hired by Ms. Ives and Dr. Murray to help with the rescue attempt. Harry Treadaway plays Victor Frankenstein. In this series, he is an unofficial coroner.

Anyway, I have a certain peeve about contemporary TV and movies. Screenwriters and producers, for all of their gifts, are often limited by failure of imagination in their most critical task: character development. More often than not, they casually and thoughtlessly assume that all decent and reasonable people of every tribe, every nation, and every era shared the attitudes and obsessions of the young and the hip in modern America. Penny Dreadful is a case in point. The brains behind it obviously went to enormous effort and expense to reproduce the look and sound of London in 1891. In meticulously depicting the tools, the architecture, the furniture, the sanitation,  the transportation, the dress, and the patterns of speech characteristic of the period, they almost succeed in immersing the viewer in the lives of English aristocrats of the Victorian era. Almost. They defeat the attempt, though, by investing their characters with the minds of university coeds in twenty-first century Los Angeles.

For example, Ethan Chandler, after witnessing the supernatural element in the case he is helping to investigate, says, “What the f___ is this?” to Ms. Ives and Dr. Murray. They barely react. At that time nobody, not even the crudest, would have used “f___” in this way. “Damn” and “hell” were the strongest words anyone would have used then, and the intended audience would not reacted so mildly. A refined Victorian lady, even one as pragmatic and imperturbable as Vanessa Ives, would probably have reprimanded the offender. At the very least, she would have given him a cold stare for his effrontery, and a gentleman such as Dr, Murray would likely have challenged him to a duel.

All of the main characters exhibit a disturbing moral nihilism, one entirely out of keeping with the times. They are untroubled even by prospect of becoming murderers. For example, when Mr. Chandler asks Ms. Ives if the “night work” she is offering him will require murder, she replies, “Does it matter?” He shrugs off her response, apparently not thinking it unreasonable. Likewise, Dr. Murray replies “Does it matter?” when  Frankenstein asks him, “How much of the world will have to be murdered to achieve this end?”, the end being the rescue of Murray’s captive daughter. Frankenstein also accepts this response. Small pockets of such extreme depravity might have existed here and there among the upper classes in Victorian England, and its not implausible that two such nihilists as Ives and Murray would be in the same social circle. It’s highly unlikely, though, that they would be so open about it with people they barely knew. And their interlocutors would not shrug off the suggestion that murder doesn’t matter. Even if as jaded and as morally vacant as their employers, Chandler and Frankenstein would want to know about murder, simply because it would increase the risk of the enterprise.

Perhaps I am quibbling. Penny Dreadful is a TV series, not a philosophy class, and maybe it isn’t necessary to think deeply about it. Its jarring anachronisms may not matter much to most viewers, and the series is strong enough in most respects to be consistently entertaining. Still, it would be refreshing if Hollywood began taking the eras they depict on their own terms. Allowing Victorian characters to speak for themselves, instead of for the screenwriters, might be the difference between an adequate TV series and a great one.

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