Thursday, June 04, 2015

Victorians cast a long shadow

The cast of Showtime's Victorian horror series "Penny Dreadful" season 1.
They lived more than 100 years ago, but our Victorian forebearers cast long shadows.

Every so often, we get a TV show set in a recent decade, say the 1960s, and TV critics go mad for it. But the Victorian era (1837-1901), especially the latter half of it, seems quietly ubiquitous on our screens of late, much as it was 50 years ago, when Westerns dominated the airwaves.

This, however, is a proper Victorianism, a Victorianism of the city and not of its frontier periphery.

Last month, Showtime’s excellent horror series “Penny Dreadful” returned for its second season. “Penny Dreadful” is the latest from the sub-genre of Victorian literary mash-ups, which include Kim Newman’s recently reissued “Anno Dracula” novels and Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” comics.

(Fox turned “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” into a movie so bad it drove Sean Connery into retirement, and just last week news leaked that Fox wants a mulligan on the property. If at first you don’t succeed, and so on.)

Like its predecessors, “Penny Dreadful” weaves its narrative out of threads of late-Victorian fact and fantasy: “Dracula,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Jack the Ripper — and some pre-Victorian “Frankenstein” just for a bit of Romantic contrast.

But this would be trivia if “Penny Dreadful” were an isolated incident. It isn’t. BBC America has “Ripper Street.” NBC recently tried to give Dracula a makeover by turning him into Nikola Tesla. And Sherlock Holmes is always with us — doubly so at present, with the BBC’s “Sherlock” and CBS’s “Elementary,” which both transport the Great Detective from gaslit streets to Internet cafes.

When Holmes first met Dr. Watson, he greeted the doctor with, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” and indeed Watson had just returned from a war in Afghanistan. No wonder Sherlock Holmes adapts so easily to the 21st century; even the historical particulars are still current.

Holmes isn’t alone. Whenever Hollywood returns to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” or H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” or some other Victorian best-seller, it’s as likely to bring the story forward to the present as leave it where it was. Wells’ Martians have invaded Earth three centuries straight, and may well do so again in the next.

You don’t usually see this with works and characters from other periods, excepting the occasional updated fairytale or gimmicky out-of-time, out-of-place stagings of Shakespeare. (“Richard III” set in a thinly veiled Nazi Germany? Why not?)

The human condition hasn’t changed much throughout history, although we’re slightly less violent nowadays, arguably. But the Victorians were the first people really like us — and by “us” I mean 21st century inhabitants of the small-l liberal, small-d democratic, small-c capitalist West.

Caricatured as pearl-clutching prudes both by those who like to feel superior and by those who’d like society to “go back” to the caricature, the Victorians were the first moderns.

The Victorians, both in England and the United States, had the first sizable middle class. They had the first mass-produced popular culture in the form of novels and magazines. They ordered from catalogs. They were wooed by advertisers. They consumed lots of pornography, then felt guilty about it and took cold baths. Their doctors turned every bad mood into a disease, especially when it came to women patients. They invented our modern notions of childhood and the serial killer.

It all seems familiar because it’s so like us. We have Netflix and iTunes instead of plays and the opera, but apart from the new wrinkle of mobile phones and instant communication, we’re little changed from the Victorians. They struggled with war and peace, science and faith, sex and family,  race and ethnicity much as we do.

With “Penny Dreadful” and the like, we continue to mine the Victorian era. It’s as far back as we can go and still feel we’re with people we really get. The main difference is the value of the penny.

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