Showtime’s goofy — and, at times, grandly — Gothic series “Penny Dreadful” wrapped up its freshman season on Sunday night, with a little bit of closure and a whole lot of set-up for Year 2, which commences sometime next year. The specific story thread that was tied off involved Vesper Lynd — um, make that, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Sir Malcolm Murray’s (Timothy Dalton) hunt for the missing Mina Harker, the latest conquest of a powerful bloodsucking being whose as-yet unstated name rhymes with “Mackula.” That quest served as the narrative engine which drove the show for the past eight episodes, pulling other public domain Victorian-era horror characters — including Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Professor Van Helsing, Dorian Gray and a wolf man (but not the Wolf Man) — into Vanessa and Malcolm’s orbit. It also provided a logical stopping point that would have allowed creator John Logan to craft a definite conclusion, had Showtime declined to pick up a second season.
Too bad that this storyline (and its resolution) also proved to be the least interesting part of the show — chalk it up to a failure of imagination or simple vampire fatigue, but from start to finish, the Search for Mina felt as perfunctory as the Search for Spock. Logan and his writing team largely failed to make the show’s central story arc seem like anything more than a goof — a bland re-telling of “Dracula” with extra camp and little soul.
The rote treatment of Stoker’s creation is all the more disappointing considering how marvelously Logan reinterpreted Mary Shelley’s own reinterpretation of the Prometheus legend. Since “Penny Dreadful”‘s first episode, the Frankenstein material consistently provided the series with its most gripping, least predictable moments — it got to the point where you could create your own Frankenstein supercut out of every “Penny Dreadful” episode with your fast-forward button and wind up with an eminently satisfying 15-20 minutes of television. (Hey Showtime — seriously consider the possibility of a “Frankenstein-Only” alternate version for the DVD release.) And with the finale setting the stage for a “Bride of Frankenstein” arc next season, Frankenstein (terrifically played by Harry Treadaway) and his monster are likely to remain the primary reason for tuning in.
“Penny Dreadful” isn’t the only recent series where a subplot regularly overshadows the master plot. Here are six currently airing shows that save their best material for supporting storylines.
“24: Live Another Day” (Fox)
The Main Storyline: One man wrecking crew Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) experiences an attack of the drones on foreign soil and — as you might guess — responds with both guns blazing.
The Better Storyline: Jack hasn’t changed much in his four years as a fugitive, but his erstwhile partner Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) is practically a whole other person, sporting a severe black wardrobe and hair color to go along with her sever attitude. The source of her fury? The death of her husband and son at the hands of the U.S. intelligence service (or so she believed anyway), which drove her into the activist hacker collective, Open Cell. This new Chloe has an agenda beyond simply being Jack’s on-call IT specialist, and Rajskub has done a nice job playing the character’s personal tragedy without wallowing in it. “24” tends to emphasize action beats over character beats, but Chloe’s arc stirs deeper emotions than the “Faster, Jack! Kill! Kill!” stuff happening in the foreground.
“Orange is the New Black” (Netflix)
The Main Storyline: The continuing misadventures of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), one-time drug mule doing time for her crime in a woman’s prison in upstate New York. Though one could also make the case that, in the show’s second season, the primary narrative arc focused on seasoned convict Vee’s (Lorraine Toussaint) attempts to stir up trouble amongst the prison’s gen-pop and profit from the ensuing clashes.
The Better Storyline: As good as Schilling is on the show, it’s rare to meet the “OITNB” fan who doesn’t consider Piper to be Litchfield’s least interesting resident. (That’s a reaction that the show itself acknowledges in the second season, poking self-aware fun at Piper’s self-absorption.) Fortunately, there’s always plenty of great drama happening around her, whether it’s learning the sad truth behind Morello’s very long engagement or watching Poussey (Samara Wiley) crack as Vee slowly, deliberately walls her off from her buddies.
But the Season 2 subplot that mined the deepest emotions and delivered the most satisfying payoff belonged to Miss Rosa Cisneros (Barbara Rosenblat), the former bank robber and current cancer victim. Besides Rosenblat’s tour-de-force performance, this arc proved the best encapsulation of a theme that ran underneath the series all season long: Namely, the American prison system’s inadequacy at caring for its aging population. Watching Miss Rosa drag herself to and from her chemo treatments, well aware that she’ll likely die in her prison cot without ever again moving through the outside world sans handcuffs, made everyone else’s problems — Piper’s included — seem that much pettier.
The Main Storyline: The Americanized scion (Adam Rayner) of a Middle Eastern dictatorship reluctantly returns to his native land and discovers he literally can’t go home again — home meaning America, in this case — when an assassination throws his family and the country at large into chaos.
The Better Storyline: “Tyrant”‘s pilot received mixed reviews and for good reason — it’s a show that boasts terrific production values in service of a story that lacks a strong center. But amidst the half-formed ideas and generic characterizations, there’s a potentially great story thread involving Sammy (Noah Silver), the American-born son of the reluctant returnee. Unlike his more skeptical (for good reason) father, 16-year-old Sammy is dazzled by the opulence and influence that comes with being the ruling family in a very small, very poor country. (The country also happens to be very conservative, which means that the kid’s interest in dating guys rather than girls won’t go over so well.) Already prone to rebellion simply because he’s a teenager, the first episode sets up a father/son fault line that will almost certainly be triggered at some point, hopefully providing some of the dramatic fireworks the show desperately needs.
“Halt and Catch Fire” (AMC)
The Main Storyline: At the dawn of the personal computer age, two forward thinking A-hole alpha males (Lee Pace and Scott McNairy) become reluctant partners in order to build a one-of-a-kind desktop PC to challenge those morons at IBM.
The Better Storyline: The computer industry was and still is a male-dominated field, so it’s historically accurate to focus the show around two bickering white guys, one of whom is channeling Kevin Spacey (Pace), while the other appears to be doing an expert Giovanni Ribisi impression (McNairy). But it’s also no accident that “Halt and Catch Fire” only just got semi-interesting in its fifth episode when it touched on what it was like to be a woman in an IBM-like workplace circa 1983, with Pace’s sometime booty call Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) joining the company’s all-male programming crew.
The overt and subtle sexism she encountered as a result made a real character out of someone who, up to that point, was written and styled like a geek pin-up girl. (It also demanded more from Davis and she responded accordingly, after mostly spending the first few episodes posing instead of acting.) Letting your sole female character carry a subplot is a lesson that Mike Judge’s considerably better “Silicon Valley” could benefit from learning as well.
“The Last Ship” (TNT)
The Main Storyline: When a pandemic decimates the Earth’s population and most of its governments, a U.S. military ship sails solo into unchartered, post-apocalyptic waters.
The Better Storyline: So… what’s up with Russia? We’re told in the pilot that the place has become a free-for-all, with different factions battling it out for whatever scraps of power remain. That all sounds much more interesting than being trapped on a ship filled with grim, glowering soldiers (and a secret Russian spy). Obviously, TV budgets being what they are, the self-contained setting of a missile destroyer is the more economical creative choice. But it’s frustrating to know that there’s a whole wide world out there that we’ll mostly only hear about second-hand.
The Main Storyline: Some three decades after Earth’s first contact with extraterrestrial life, nomad Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler) puts down stakes in the frontier town of Defiance (formerly St. Louis) and keeps the peace amongst its diverse population of humans, aliens and none of the above.
The Better Storyline: As with “Orange is the New Black”‘s Piper, Nolan is the frontman for a backing band of more compelling characters who populate Defiance. The best of the bunch is Jaime Murray’s Stahma Tarr, an ambitious, wily member of the Castithan race who spent most of Season 1 deferring to her lunkheaded husband, as per her alien culture’s custom. Now that he’s gone and gotten himself locked up, she’s the de facto head of his criminal empire, even if their son acts as its public face. Stahma as Scarface? Bring it on.