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Josh Hartnett returns to television along with a riveting Eva Green in Showtime’s Victorian monster-mash horror drama “Penny Dreadful” which premieres May 11 during the premium network’s free preview.

It’s always something of a gamble to name a show with a word such as “Dreadful” in the title as it allows a reviewer an easy cheap shot, but in fact “Penny Dreadful” is quite the opposite with an intriguing set up, some very sharp performances and a winning delivery.

Hartnett, who went on to a movie career after excelling in ABC’s remake of Cracker, plays Ethan Chandler, a Buffalo Bill style character, who is hired on for his firearm expertise by the mysterious Vanessa Ives and noted African explorer Sir Malcolm Murray in Victorian London. Ives and Murray, played by Green and Timothy Dalton respectively, are searching for Sir Murray’s missing daughter, taken by the creatures of the netherworld. “Do you believe in the demimonde,” Ives asks Chandler “a half world between what we know and what we fear?” For that is the world that “Penny Dreadful” looks set to mine and quite aggressively it would appear.

Fair or not, and probably the latter in this case, there is a tendency to form an impression of an actor or actress from the first performance that you see. Green originally caught my eye in the utterly turgid “Casino Royale” fiasco, a movie that still colors my opinion of the likes of Daniel Craig and Mads Mikkelsen. To say that the French actress is excellent in her portrayal of the enigmatic Ives doesn’t do Green justice as she is dominating, in a good way, every time she is on screen. Dalton, he of the better in retrospect “Living Daylights” and the horrifically awful “License to Kill,” the worst Bond of all time until “Quantum of Solace” came along, gives his stereotypical steely performance as the adventurer on the most important search of his career. It’s a winning threesome in terms of main protagonists and when Hartnett is potentially the weak link of the trio, that’s a pretty good baseline.

Along for the ride are Harry Treadaway as Victor Frankenstein, Rory Kinnear as his monster, Reeve Carney in the role of Dorian Gray and Irish immigrant Billie Piper the latter two of whom had not yet shown up in the opening episode of what will be an eight-episode first season.

John Logan, who created and wrote the show, Sam Mendes and Pippa Harris are the executive producers on the show with longtime Mendes collaborator Simon Russell Beale absolutely wonderful in a scene-stealing performance as eccentric Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle. I’m really hopeful that we’ll see more of that character as the season progresses. Weaving Egyptian mythology into Victorian England and the potential numerous literary characters that could appear gives me great hope that the show will have some decent legs. Certainly “Penny Dreadful” is stylish and yet stereotypically dark while hinting at more graphic horror to come in potentially a hit show for Showtime.

- Wallace Poulter

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