Penny Dreadful Season Three

p32016.56: Penny Dreadful Season 3

I’m not really going to write in any detail about the series itself- if you haven’t seen it yet, please do, its a great show- so this will be pretty much spoiler free.

The biggest talking-point  regards the third season of Penny Dreadful concerns the fact that the show has been cancelled. The production company and showmakers all maintain that the series has ended as planned, that it was always going to be a three-season arc, that the story has been told. Fans however are not convinced, and I count myself amongst them.

Yes, a conclusion has been fashioned, even complete with a ‘The End’ text-card to underline it. But anyone who has watched the show across three seasons will be suspicious, and likely feel shortchanged. There is such a change of pace between the first two seasons of Penny Dreadful and its third season,  that I am struck by memories of Babylon 5‘s fourth season- with cancellation imminent, JMS had to squeeze plotlines from season 5 into season 4 in order to tell the complete planned story. You can feel that happening here. There’s just too much story, too many revelations that feel forced rather than earned, and new characters given short-shrift who should have had arcs spread into season four and possibly five (else why introduce new characters like  Lord Hyde/Dr Jekyll, or Catriona Hartdegen, at all?).

There’s an inescapable feeling that season three was greenlit with an undeclared proviso to wrap things up early, which forced the writers to rehash any original third-season outline and leap into closing things out. It feels too abrupt. It feels unearned. Indeed, it leaves us asking things like what was the point of Dorian Gray’s character at all, a character who’s arc has drifted on the edge of the main story for the entirety of season one and two, and indeed continued thus in season three, as if biding time for greater relevance at a later point in season four or five? Film-makers forget that audiences are more sophisticated now thanks to shows like Game of Thrones, Mad Men and so many others- we ‘know’ how things are set up for later revelations/plots. We put up with vagueness or lack of immediate resolution because we know its likely coming later. In the case of Penny Dreadful, there is a sense of being robbed of that. We gave the showrunners the benefit of the doubt, and try as they might to give us an ending with season three’s finale, they let us down.

Showtime’s gothic Victorian horror was one of the best-kept secrets on television, and has suffered the same fate as another genre favourite, Hannibal. While I would still rate it as a superior show and worthy of watching, I have to say it does now feel a lesser show than it might have been, now that it has been seemingly cut short. Like Hannibal, it has some kind of ending, but alas one that doesn’t really feel satisfying.

If, as fans suspect, the showrunners had originally planned a five-season arc, then Penny Dreadful likely finishes the best way it could, all things considered. We got three seasons of a five-season story with a necessarily curtailed ending with arcs unresolved. If we are to believe the story was always intended to end at season three, then it’s bad, dreadful planning/writing, something that could never be said of the show before. So yeah, I yell ‘foul’.

If its low ratings, like Hannibal, then fair enough, but do not dress up the cancellation as something it isn’t. I simply cannot believe that Penny Dreadful was intended to run just three seasons, something I believe had never been intimated before by anyone behind the show. Penny Dreadful, and its fans, deserved better.

Hannibal and Da Vinci’s Demons Renewed

Well, here’s some good news from tv-land; both Hannibal and Da Vinci’s Demons have been renewed for third seasons. These are two of my favourite shows at the moment. Currently I have my Tivo recording both their second seasons for me to watch when the complete seasons are ready (I have the first seasons on Blu-ray which I plan to re-watch prior to each).

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Hannibal has suffered from poor ratings since it started (it’s second season renewal was uncertain) but has rightfully enjoyed critical success- thankfully international financing helps covers its costs which makes it easier for NBC to renew it- importantly this also helps avoid network interference with the show. Considering how great Hannibal is, its ratings are odd (if this show was on HBO it would be huge, I’m sure) and I’m frustrated by how it gets lost in the schedules over here in the UK on a fairly minor satellite/cable channel. Nobody I know watches it. It feels like The Wire all over again; I expect word of mouth to ensure healthy DVD/Blu-ray box set sales in years to come. The writing is brilliant and the acting superb; this kind of stuff is better than what we see in movies, frankly. But anyway, a third season is great news and I can relax when eventually watching season two knowing there is more to come (I think the producers intend it to run seven seasons in order to tell the entire Hannibal storyline from the books and movies).

Da Vinci's Demons 2012Da Vinci’s Demons is the real guilty pleasure of these two shows. Its got a thoroughly preposterous premise but nevertheless its a joy to watch- I wasn’t sure for the first few episodes but once I ‘got’ what the show was I settled into it. Its really an adult comicbook, a what-if kind of thing, a flight of fantasy set in a strange sexy  medieval world in which fictional characters like Dracula exist in the same world as dashing hero Da Vinci. It seems to take its cues from conspiracy theories and political/religious intrigues – sort of  Dan Brown but wilder. Thanks to its period setting it looks and feels different to most everything else I see. Yes its daft but great fun. The performances are very good, the scripts imaginative and the production amazing considering its filmed here in the UK.  Its also graced by a terrific, highly ambitious music score by Bear McCreary that is, like his BSG work, a whole additional character in the show. Again, it seems to have a long story-arc in mind across several seasons and in many ways its clearly a harder sell than Hannibal so confirmation of a third season is brilliant news.

So anyway, anyone reading this who hasn’t tried either of these shows- give them a shot, you may be very pleasantly surprised.

 

Television > Movies?

bsg7 bsg5American Horror Story. Dexter. The Shield. The Wire. BSG. Boardwalk Empire. Game of Thrones. Mad Men. That’s hardly the start of it. There is a long list of television shows now that are the equal, if not indeed actually superior to, what we see in the cinema.

Back when I was a lad – well, not even anything like that long ago actually- there was a clear difference in quality between television and movies- even ‘big’ shows like the original Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, tv shows created on the back of the post-Star Wars sci-fi boom, were clearly of inferior quality compared to their Big Screen counterparts. There were obvious limitations in budgets and time-constraints that meant that what was on viewers television screens was markedly different to what was on the silver screen. But it went beyond just production values. You’d very rarely, if ever, find an established movie-actor appearing on television, whether it be tv series or a tv-movie. It would seem to be a ‘step-down’. Likewise movie directors wouldn’t work on television projects. If anything, directors would start in television to get experience and work their way up to motion-pictures, seeing the latter as the Big Time and never to return to their humble origins.

bsg4 bsg6Things have changed though. Television is still home to plenty of sub-standard product but some of its quality shows are easily superior to most motion pictures. Actors see better roles for themselves on television than what is available on the silver screen- dramatic, challenging roles with real merit. Even film directors have become used to using their skills on television projects. Mostly this is due to premium cable networks like HBO but even on other, lesser cable channels, or terrestrial networks such as the BBC here in the UK, there is not the old natural perception that ‘made for tv’ means any less quality than a full-blown motion picture, whether home-grown or from Hollywood.

I have just finished watching Hannibal, a prime-time show from the NBC network in the USA. Rarity it may be for that network, it was nevertheless one of the best shows I have ever seen, easily equal to the quality we’d tend to expect from premium sources such as HBO. I’ve never been a huge fan of the various Hannibal-based movies but this 13-part series was easily equal to them. The writing, acting and direction… the location-shooting and the intense soundscape of the music score… it is a remarkable piece of work. Here in the UK it was shown on the SkyLiving channel, aired via cable and satellite networks, so no doubt failed to set ratings-figures alight or gain much attention from tv critics more focused on popular soaps or primetime shows. I only hope its DVD/Blu-ray release will widen its reach, or that I can talk people into giving it a go and perhaps tuning in to the second season next year, because this was really something special. The makers have a five or six-year plan for the series and I’d love to see it manage that.

bsg1 bsg2I recorded Hannibal on my Tivo box, letting the Tivo collect all the episodes each week over the past few months before finally watching them over the past week or two as the showing of the series finale neared. I guess in a way it was like watching it as a DVD boxset, watching it every night or so, and sometimes watching two episodes in a night if time allowed. That way was ideal for following the plot and picking up on clues as the storyline progressed as opposed to waiting for a new episode each week. And of course I was able to skip through the irritating ad breaks. I guess tv chiefs hate people doing this, but it does raise the issue of how people access television content now.  If I had watched the first two or three episodes and decided it wasn’t for me, I’d have stopped and deleted the series from the Tivo, but instead I found it was really excellent and devoured it inside a fortnight, never being subjected to a commercial break.

Many of these series have long complex story-arcs, almost like long novels. Seasons may be self-contained very often character-arcs span multiple seasons and events in, say, season 5 might refer back to events of an episode in season 2. They encourage viewers to pay attention and reward that attention, A two or three-hour movie cannot even approach that level of complexity or sense of reward to the viewer.

I know there were television shows that did it before (particularly here in the UK), but I often think that the tv show Babylon 5 was the first real attempt at this kind of programming. Most tv shows prior to that, particularly network shows, had an established model of individual episodes that pressed a magical ‘reset’ button at their conclusion. That way audiences could miss the odd episode but drop in easily. Shows like Star Trek, The A-Team… pretty much any show, they were all the same. Series creator J. Michael Straczynski had a plan for Babylon 5 from the very start, a five-year arc with a definitive beginning, middle and end, essentially a novel for television in the genre of space-opera, and it pretty much succeeded. It wasn’t perfect and has been bettered since, but it proved to be the model for future genre shows like Farscape, Battlestar Galactica and so many others, right up to current series like Defiance and Falling Skies.

I remember being absolutely blown away by Babylon 5. I’d see things in series one that were brought up in series three or four, or something a character would do or say in series five that dated back to something that happened to them in series two. There hadn’t been anything quite like that before. I would re-watch shows to pick up on something I may have missed, and, Lord knows, I couldn’t miss an episode. I remember at the end of each season the agonising wait to hear if the show would get renewed for another (Babylon 5 was always a borderline success and its fans were always subjected to a real-world renewal cliffhanger equal to any of the shows in-series cliffhangers). The series may have faltered toward the end (the storyline proper had pretty much been condensed to the end of season four due to poor ratings) but the emotional pay-off of the final scenes of the last episode of season five was like nothing I had experienced before. I loved that show.

bsg8bsg10Nowadays most shows seem to follow the Babylon 5 model. They can be victims of it, of course, as once the show is established, it can find it impossible to increase audience ratings. That happened to Farscape and it suffered a painful cancellation, but even its fans have to admit there was little chance of new viewers to, say, season three, having the slightest chance of figuring out what was going on. That’s the real challenge of episodic television like this, how to maintain or even increase viewer ratings with entry-points and the like while maintaining multi-season arcs. I guess DVD boxsets help with this. I missed the initial showings of Dexter, for instance, but I saw the first series one and two on DVD boxset and then followed it from season three onwards on-air, so the shows likely manage to increase viewers through things like that. Of course it also might actually reduce viewing figures, as a lot of people just wait for the boxset anyway, which can prove dangerous to the longevity of the show.

So anyway, this seems a long way of stating the fact that I find many television shows better than what is shown in cinemas now. Its gotten to the point that I watch fewer movies now, and more tv shows, and find the latter more rewarding. Thirty, twenty years ago that would not be the case. But show me any recent social-commentary movie equal to The Wire. Any science-fiction movie of the past ten years equal to the Battlestar Galactica reboot. Anything as endlessly fascinating as Mad Men. Movies have become huge bubblegum entertainment blockbusters, hugely popular, yes, but hardly satisfying in the way so many tv shows are now.  Which is another way of saying I am more inclined to be excited about an upcoming tv series than I am any movie. For all the blockbusters coming to the cinema this year or next, I am more hyped for the return of Da Vinci’s Demons or American Horror Story or Mad Men or, indeed,  Hannibal.  And it seems my Blu-ray shelf is stocked as much by tv box-sets (and I am more inclined to watch and rewatch them) as it is by movies. Unfortunately of course, all these boxsets and series are more time-consuming, which is likely the one negative about them.

But anyway, if you didn’t catch Hannibal on-air, do give the upcoming box-set a go. You won’t regret it- except that you’ll be in for an agonising wait for season two!