John Logan, creator of the new Showtime series “Penny Dreadful,” calls himself a “total monster geek,” having grown up a fan of the Universal Studios and Hammer Films horror movies. He even put together plastic model kits of monsters when he was young.
Despite that youthful passion for the macabre, Logan initially had no interest in writing a horror story as his next TV project. It wasn’t until he re-read “Frankenstein” that interest in doing a monster-laden project began to take shape. The more he thought about the genre, the more he felt a connection to the way the misunderstood creatures were treated.
“I was just very provoked by it. I was very disturbed by it, because it’s deeply disturbing. I started thinking about the themes and why almost 200 years after it was written are we still reading ‘Frankenstein.’ I think it’s because the monsters break my heart,” Logan says.
“And personally speaking, growing up as a gay man before it was as socially acceptable as it is now, I knew what it was to feel different, to feel alienated, to feel not like everyone else. But the very same thing that made me monstrous to some people also empowered me and made me who I was.
“So I was really just thinking about that theme. And gradually I remembered the old Universal horror movies of the ’40s, where all of a sudden they would start mixing and matching the Wolfman with Dracula, with Frankenstein. And I thought, ‘I wonder if there’s a way to do that now and to take the characters seriously.’ And that was how it all began.”
“Penny Dreadful” airs at 10 Sunday night. The show digs deep into the monstrous creatures that roam the streets of London just before the start of the 20th century. They aren’t muggers, rapists and murderers, but monsters inspired by “Frankenstein,” “Dracula” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
The Victorian Era’s version of the “X-Files” team that tackles these horrors includes a sharpshooter (Josh Hartnett), psychic (Eva Green) and explorer (Timothy Dalton) who enlist the aid of Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney).
The series title comes from the cheap magazines available during that period that offered sensational tales of violence and criminal activities.
Green is no stranger to TV productions based on literary characters; she starred in the cable series “Camelot.” She was drawn to “Penny Dreadful” because of Logan’s writing.
“It’s such a magnificent story and all the characters are very complex,” she says. “And for me, it’s such a gift to have such a meaty role, and you don’t get that very often. She’s such a beautiful heroine. All the characters are very flawed, complicated, and it’s just great to sink your teeth into. This is a very human show. It’s not just scary for the sake of it.”
Her character, Vanessa Ives, is a rebel during the repressed Victorian times. She’s conflicted because her senses are so alive, Ives has a constant hunger for life.
The writing was strong enough to lure Hartnett away from feature films. He loves the idea of being the only American in the group – a member of a B-grade Wild West show. But the switch to TV created a few initial problems for Hartnett, who is accustomed to playing film roles where everything he needs to know about his character is in the script. Hartnett has had to adjust to the television style, where the history of a character is doled out on a weekly basis. He is now a fan of the art form.
“It’s much more like life that way, which I find really interesting,” Hartnett says.
NBC order four pilots
In its first major announcement of the 2014 upfront season, NBC has placed series orders for four pilots – the romantic sitcom “Marry Me,” in addition to three dramas, “Odyssey,” “State of Affairs” and “Allegiance,” revolving around spies and terrorism.
From “Happy Endings” creator David Caspe, “Marry Me” stars Ken Marino (“Eastbound & Down,” “Party Down”) and Casey Wilson (also of “Happy Endings”) as Jake and Annie, a long-term couple who have remained inseparable since they first bonded over a shared love of nachos six years ago. Jake plans to propose to Annie after returning from a romantic vacation, but before he can do so Annie unleashes on him for his failure to make it official, and the pair decided to postpone their engagement.
In “State of Affairs,” Katherine Heigl plays top CIA analyst Charleston “Charlie” Tucker, charged with assembling a daily intelligence briefing for the president (Alfre Woodard). In addition to the difficult moral and political decisions she must make as a part of the job, Charlie was also engaged to the president’s son, until he was killed in a terrorist attack. She is now determined to bring his killers to justice.
“Allegiance,” from executive producers George Nolfi and Avi Nir, also centers on a CIA analyst. In this case, it’s a young specialist in Russian affairs named Alex O’Connor (Gavin Stenhouse) who discovers his parents are Soviet spies deactivated decades ago.
The network’s other drama order also dabbles in international intrigue. Billled as a “Traffic”-like action drama,” “Odyssey” explores a sprawling international conspiracy that ties together three very different characters – a female soldier, a corporate lawyer and a young political activist.