Monday Morning Critic: Penny’s Anatomy

Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.

In this week’s installment: a review of the second season of “Penny Dreadful,” and a look at some of the brouhaha surrounding last week’s “Grey’s Anatomy.”

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Welcome to another installment of “5 Questions and 500 Words,” my approach to reviewing the crazy amount of shows that will be unspooling/returning over the course of the next few weeks. Given the glut of shows, and the glut of reviews that will be published for these shows, I’m keeping things short and sweet. This is for your convenience and my sanity.

“Penny Dreadful” returns on Sunday, May 3 at 10 pm EST on Showtime 

Isn’t this just famous literature monsters plus gore plus naked Eva Green?

Only one who had never seen “Penny Dreadful” (or, more accurately, had only seen the promos for the show”) would hurl such a description at the show, which landed quite comfortably in my Top 10 list last December. Sure, this show has those elements, but it’s not really about those. As with the best genre work, series mastermind John Logan has located the metaphors embedded deep in the type of literature that gives this show its name and in turn made one of the more deeply human shows on television.

Can you use an extremely unlikely analogy to describe what you mean?

You betcha! Let me be up front that I mean disrespect when I compare “Penny” to this, but it’s the best and most recent piece of pop culture that qualifies. Over this past weekend, people rightly praised ABC’s interview of Bruce Jenner for its sensitivity and genuine empathy towards a subject matter now deemed, but “popular” consensus, as being an outsider. Jenner isn’t any different of a person on a core level, but our perception and therefore categorization has changed. Some of that change is necessary, since it points to our understanding of his transition. But a lot of it serves to vilify at worst or simply segregate at best. The characters of “Penny Dreadful” exist in that outsider space as well, and turn to each other because there are so precious few others for whom to turn.

Does the show shelter these characters?

It depends what you mean by “shelter.” On one level, yes, insomuch as Logan has a sympathetic eye to go along with his writerly ear for all of them. (This is the kind of show where characters regularly say things like, “Why should a flower make me sad?” without it somehow being the most obnoxious thing in the world.) But Logan doesn’t make his outsiders perfect by any stretch. In particular, his version of Doctor Frankenstein goes to even murkier places early this season that stretch audience sympathies to their maximum. By contrast, there’s another scene involving an unlikely pairing that was so sweet and kind that I damn near cried with joy.

But…it’s still a scary show, right?

Even scarier than season one, at least in the two episodes screened to critics. There are at least two concepts that feel like nightmares given three-dimensional form, and spoiling those would spoil some of the visceral fun. This is a gorgeously realized world in which horrible things constantly lurk in the shadows. There are things in season 2 that even scare Vanessa Ives, and this is definitely not one of those situations where a TV show tells you something is scary without backing it up with the goods.

Will this show stand out in the crowd in 2015?

It’s hard to say. It’s not like 2014 had a lot more shows like “Penny,” and in my estimation, it was still wildly overlooked then. There are only eight episodes in that first season, and I’m posting this review six days before the premiere in the hopes you decide to sample it before this Sunday’s premiere. It marries the character work we all love about TV with some of the most sumptuous production design along with some scream-inducing scares. I’m not sure what more else you can ask of an entertainment such as this.

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I have two thoughts about last Thursday’s episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” even though I’ve never watched that show except unless when catching the final two minutes of an episode impatiently waiting for “Scandal” to start. Don’t worry. I don’t want to talk about the episode itself. I do want to talk about two things that came up around it: the spoilers and the snobbery.

The Spoilers

Many people were outraged that Entertainment Weekly (or the USPS, depending on who one blames) sent out issues of its magazine to customers ahead of the normal Friday delivery schedule. Why? Because in the issue was an article spoiling Patrick Dempsey’s departure. It was only a spoiler due to timing: Had the magazine arrived on Friday, it would have been as timely an article as possible in the weekly magazine lifecycle. But someone posted a screenshot of the article on Instagram, and dozens of online outlets then reported the leak with varying levels of success (ie, some articled talking about the leak basically leaked information to its own readers, instead of allowing followers on Facebook and Twitter to choose whether or not to know the nature of the leak by clicking a link).

It’s easier to hate spoilers, but they are also notoriously hard to pin down and even harder to suppress. Knowledge wants out, especially when there are forces inside and outside of Hollywood desirous of having certain information disseminated. And look, I hate the idea of spoilers to the point where I don’t even watch the “Next Time On” segments that end most serialized dramas. I want to go into an episode as clueless as possible. (Most people that don’t like my writing would say I come out the other side equally as clueless, but that’s another article for another time.) I get more personal pleasure out of consuming things this way. But I also know that’s indeed a personal choice and not one I can inflict/impose upon others. Technically, casting announcements can be spoilers, especially if the news of the casting digs deep into whom the actor will be playing on the show. Should people NOT report on these things or discuss them? Of course not. That seems silly.

The big point here is that I’m far more interested in the reaction to the leak than the leak itself. Once that Instagram was out, there wasn’t much of a decision whether or not to report it, and thereby potentially stem the tide of those adversely affected by the news. I have no hard information on this, but anecdotally, those craving spoilers far outweigh those that don’t. And that anecdotal sense is backed up by the Simon Says of reporting that appears anytime a leak in either a TV show or movie springs up. On Facebook, any such story in my feed had three almost identical stories right below it, culled and cultivated in convenient form. It’s the FOMO of entertainment journalism. And I can’t believe for a second there wouldn’t be this sudden, almost choreographed scramble if it didn’t get pageviews. If these types of spoilers didn’t get hits, sites wouldn’t report them. So there’s no earthly way I can blame sites for running them, because “getting paid” is a pretty nice thing. And if those articles get a lot of hits, there have to be many people who need to scratch that itch and just learn something hours, days, weeks, or even months in advance.

Bottom line: I understand the impulses on both sides, and it seems foolish to get upset each time it happens. We can’t have one internet for the non-spoiled and one for the spoiled. The cat’s long out of the bag. The spoilers have won, and will continue to be increasingly victorious as we move from computers to smartphones to whatever the next big technology is.

The Snobbery

I spoke about this a little on my Twitter feed last Friday, and I don’t want to rehash(tag) things too much here. But it’s something worth preserving outside of 140-character chunks, at least for me.

All the news surrounding the big news about “Grey’s Anatomy” was met by a slightly-smaller, but equally vocal, set of rejoinders essentially saying, “Wait, that show is still on the air?” It’s the kind of snark that Twitter was built for, and Lord knows I’ve been snarky in my time in the Twitterverse. But this type of snark bugs, even as one who isn’t a “Grey’s” fan in the first place.  After all, what “Wait, that show is still on the air?” really means is, “Wait, you still watch that show?” It’s a personal attack disguised as cultural criticism, and it’s gotta go.

One of the by-products of the Too Much Good TV era is lowered ratings, for sure, but also near-infinite curation of one’s TV consumption. Twenty years ago, you still had some variety in people’s overall prime-time viewing habits, but there were only certain variations you could really extract. Now, between the sheer number of channels, sheer number of original programming, and the additional ability to watch TV’s past in streaming form, and each individual viewer is a TV-soaked snowflake. There’s simply no “average” viewer at this point, which makes ratings juggernauts such as “The Walking Dead” so unusual at this stage of the game. But even if you don’t watch a certain show doesn’t mean the show no longer exists. It simply exists without you. But comments such as “Wait, that show is still on the air?” seek to articulate incredulity that something can indeed occur without our personal eyeballs verifying its existence. There are television trees falling all the time in the forest, and just because you can’t hear them doesn’t mean that others can’t.

I totally get cries of, “I can’t believe you are not watching [insert low-rated show here]!” What I can’t get is, “I can’t believe you watch this thing that gives you pleasure, because it gives me no pleasure to watch it.” That’s freakin’ insane. I don’t see how that’s a good use of time or energy. That latter statement either assumes 1) “One can’t possibly like this show” or 2) “You don’t actually like that show”. I’ve gotten enough grief over shows I like over the years to simply enjoy what I like for as long as episodes of it are made. My top three show of last year were “Enlisted,” “Review,” and “You’re The Worst.” I’m pretty sure a TBS rerun at 2 am of “The Big Bang Theory” draws more eyeballs than these three did combined during the original airings. I get why someone might not have heard of these shows, given their ratings. I could understand reactions of, “Wait, is that even a show?” when I would plead for people to watch. That speaks to the sheer amount of TV and the tiny, if devoted, audiences that many shows have.

But “Grey’s Anatomy” gets the kind of ratings any network drama would love to have. ABC will air that show as long as Shonda Rhimes wants to make it, because Rhimes has made a show millions of people want to watch and has done so for 11 seasons. If you haven’t watched a single episode of the show, I am RIGHT THERE WITH YOU. I can’t tell a McDreamy from a McSteamy. But that doesn’t give anyone the right to casually dismiss its existence (nor that of the fans who watch it) simply because it doesn’t inhabit one’s DVR. It speaks to the need to crack the code of modern TV, seeking the One True Viewing Schedule that displays your proper consumption of the overwhelming options. If “Grey’s” doesn’t fit on that schedule, that’s more than fine. But it’s silly to argue someone else’s choice about how to spend their TV time. I have enough internal struggle about what to watch on a given week to worry about what anyone else is watching. If you have that kind of time, awesome. But use it for something else. (Like, say, watching “You’re The Worst.” Because that show is actualy the best.)