Tag Archives: tv reviews

Penny Dreadful’s Dreadful Ending

We watched Penny Dreadful recently, a show that finished its run on Showtime a year or so ago and then washed up on the shores of Netflix. Of course, we began watching the series before reading the spoilers and reviews which suggested that the third (final) season was terrible and disappointing, but it starts off pretty gangbusters. Victorian heroes and heroines? Gothic stories, wicked violence, thrilling adventure? The perfect summer guilty pleasure, and so it was — we gobbled up two seasons in the space of about a week at the end of the summer.

Then we got about three episodes into season three and … just stopped. Partly because we ran out of time — when the summer goes for a family of educators, so goes the free time for binge-watching — and partly because the show lost its sense of what it was.

Here’s the part where I warn you that there are spoilers ahead for this show that’s over a year in the can, if spoilers are a thing you care about.

The first season was basically like the Avengers meets the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen meets all those dusty old novels you’ve thought about reading but never quite got around to: it mashes up Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde and Dorian Gray, and turns them loose on the seedy, foggy streets of London. We end up with werewolves and gunslingers and vampires and witches stalking each other through back alleys and holy sharknado, is it a wild, dark, sexy ride.

The second season takes those heroes and fixes them firmly in orbit around the only female hero in the bunch, one Vanessa Ives. She’s a badass witch, and we learn just how she became so badass, and the perils of becoming so badass — she’s sought after by basically all the forces of darkness. More adventures. Frankenstein re-animates a woman for his monster and falls in love with her himself, but hey, whoops, turns out she won’t be owned, and she wreaks absolute hell in the streets of London herself.

That’s what made the show so satisfying: it was a bloodbath every episode, with a ragtag group of mercenaries fighting for their lives against the ultimate darkness, and the strongest, most fearsome, and most interesting characters in the series were the women.

Until season three. Wherein Vanessa, the most fearsome witch in the land, goes into a dark, existential struggle and gives in to become the bride of Dracula, and the aforementioned bride of Frankenstein falls into orbit with and becomes the diversion of Dorian Gray.

And it just becomes so … boring.

Well, we hate to leave a thing unfinished, and having sunk in the time to watch two seasons of what was once a pretty good show, we felt compelled to commit the time to finish the series out, to see if it turned itself around.

And it did … kind of.

There’s a sort of lovely duality to the final two episodes. The two women — Ives and the Bride — are both kept women, slaves to the men who have tamed them, bested them. But they respond differently: Vanessa gives up, stops fighting, and accepts that she can no longer fight against the forces that pursue her, even though she’s free to leave at any time, while the Bride fights with every breath, though she’s literally chained in a dungeon. Too much of it has escaped from memory, because I waited too long to put down these thoughts about it, but it’s all actually very poetic and sharp.

Except — and here’s the big spoiler — Vanessa kills herself at the end.

Which, I dunno, is a thing that makes sense, given the world that’s been built up around her. She has, after all, been pursued by the devil himself, and then by Dracula, and, due to the events of season three, been left by herself to stand against these advances. She sees no way out. She succumbs, and death and destruction ensue as the world’s most powerful witch and the father of vampires open the gates of hell.

But she kills herself. Or rather, she asks the man who loved her to kill her, and he does. And … that’s it. This woman who has been built up as the baddest, most indomitable spirit between heaven or hell? She sees no way out, gives up, and doesn’t even do it herself; she asks a man to kill her.

Horribly anticlimactic and disappointing.

Now, the Bride — she uses her cunning, plays upon her captor’s heartstrings, and escapes into the wild again. That’s an ending we can get behind. But the show isn’t about the Bride, not really. She’s a side-plot. If the show’s about anybody, it’s about Vanessa, and at the end, she gives up. And it’s hard to get behind that.

Not because she dies; a character choosing death can be valiant, if it’s for the right cause. And the argument can be made that Vanessa’s cause is valiant — the union between her and Dracula is literal poison for London, and eventually, for the world.

But she goes out weak. And I was led to believe, by everything that the show showed us up until the moment of her death, that this character was anything but weak.

That, I think, is why the show’s final season got panned. But it’s not like Showtime hasn’t seen horrible finales before — this is the network, after all, that turned one of the most compelling anti-heroes in recent memory into a reclusive lumberjack in his series finale. (Oh Dexter, we hardly knew ye.)

Tonight’s viewing? The first episode of Westworld. And initial impressions are double plus good.

Terrible Reviews: The Night Of

Let me make up for the fact that I never wrote about Stranger Things (which was awesome) by jumping in and saying some things about The Night Of while it’s still fresh.

This review will be spoilerific. How could it not? The show just ended, and you can’t talk about what’s awesome and awful about it without talking about the ending. So — spoilers ahead. Seriously. Don’t read this if you haven’t watched the ending (if you care about that sort of thing).

The Night Of is one of those shows my wife and I tried on a fluke — she’s a fan of that unsolved murder stuff, and I’m rather a big fan of John Turturro — but we were hooked before the end of the first episode.

Well, the finale was this weekend, and I’m still thinking about it. We watch a fair bit of TV, but it’s rare that we have a show that we get excited about watching. We were excited about this one every week. It’s dark. It’s depressing. It’s hard to watch at times. But it’s the most compelling thing I’ve seen in recent history.

Here are three things that made it awesome:

  1. You don’t know who to root for. Nas, the protagonist who finds himself accused (and possibly guilty) of murder? Jack, the grizzled, lives-for-the-job ambulance-chaser lawyer who takes Nas’s case on a spark of something like goodwill? Box, the nearly-retired detective trying to close one last case? Every character is flawed. Every character has moments of I LOVE THAT GUY interspersed liberally with moments of ARE YOU KIDDING WHAT A TERRIBLE IDEA. Every character fluctuates between being adorably naive and soul-twistingly stupid. In the end, there’s nobody we were tired of seeing, because every character was a deep well of still water with inky-black creatures of darkness swimming in its depths.
  2. Everybody gets boned. Not in the good way. A down-on-her-luck girl is murdered. Parents lose their son to prison and all their money to his defense. One lawyer loses her license, another loses a case that she had no business losing. Prisoners get coerced into some truly horrific acts. Innocents become complicit in trying to help out their loved ones in prison. Everybody gets their hands dirty. Everybody is diminished. None are spared.
  3. Even in victory, there is no victory. Nas is acquitted of the crime, but he’s spent months in prison. He returns to the real world addicted to drugs and covered with tattoos that will forever mark him, not to mention the emotional scars of his trauma. Lawyer Jack notches a win (kind of), but not exactly a windfall, and the very next day, he’s back to his grind of chasing down plea deals for criminals who don’t stand a chance. Detective Box clears his conscience on Nas but opens the can of worms that is chasing down an entirely new suspect, and that without his badge (he’s retired) and having taken on the truly crap job of campus security to keep himself busy. And Nas’s parents, who mortgaged everything — literally and figuratively — to fight for their son, learn that the man they rescued from prison is no longer their son at all. The ending can’t even be called bittersweet. There is no such thing as a win, here. (Except, possibly, for Jack and his new cat.)

Those actually all sound like bad things, but they’re not. The show is eminently watchable, and it’s due in no small part to the fact that we couldn’t wait to see what awful thing was coming down the pike for these characters next.

On the other hand, nothing is perfect. Here are three things that made it not so awesome:

  1. The ending is a bit too abrupt. The trial — which seems like an absolute slam-dunk for the prosecution, and which is described as such by the defense lawyer (“you just convicted him” — spoken with scorn to his fellow attorney) turns on a dime with an oddball hesitation by the DA and the traditional impassioned speech from the beleaguered defense attorney. Suddenly it’s a mistrial, and in the blink of an eye, Nas goes free (kind of). But there was no hint as to what the jury were feeling, virtually no time spent suffering in deliberation with a deadlocked jury. Just, wham, it’s over. Which is, I’m sure, not an accident — trials are sometimes abrupt like that — but the mistrial and dismissal just seemed a little too clean in the end for me.
  2. Jack’s eczema. The show has run its course, and I am still asking myself the same question I was asking after two episodes, which is: what is the deal with Jack’s eczema? It plagues him, no doubt. It makes even harder his unenviable life and career, not least of which because he has to enter the arena of $300 dress shoes and fancy suits wearing open-toed sandals and bags of vaseline on his feet. And sure, his condition flares up on the night of the big closing, and he has to deliver his speech covered in sores and sleep-deprived from a night in the ER. But he doesn’t overcome it. It’s just a hassle without any resolution or grounding or payoff. Strange. Gross.
  3. Kapoor. This woman takes such a remarkable and idiotic swan dive from her place of grace, it basically defies credulity — except that it doesn’t. First, she takes the job representing Nas against the advice of her employer. Then she ends up falling for him, kissing him during one of their meetings in prison (caught on film, of course), which seems absolutely out of nowhere, unless you just chalk it up to the Florence Nightingale effect. The next thing we know, she’s smuggling drugs into the prison for him (in her “body cavity” as the show so delicately puts it), to level him out so that he can take the stand — even though Jack has, rather convincingly, told her that he should by no means take the stand. Of course she’s caught, fired, and likely disbarred. And why? For love? I wanted really badly to like this character, for her to be the shining beacon of light in the neverending night that was The Night Of, but it was not to be. I can’t tell if her downfall is so disappointing it’s insulting, or so common and simple that it’s perfect.

The show gets too much right (and maybe terrifyingly right), though, for its shortcomings to keep me from watching. It’s excellent, even if it turns your stomach as you gulp it down.

The verdict: Four and a half out of five infected prison tattoos.

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