By Jeff Jensen
Updated June 26, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT
Jonathan Hession/Showtime

Grim heroes and deranged monsters. Black magic and bloody horror. Such is the sensationalistic stuff of contemporary pop culture — and Victorian England’s penny dreadfuls, lurid adventure serials published on cheap paper. The clever pastiche of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful takes inspiration from this pulp — and early-19th-century gothic — and zaps it with cable-drama panache (Nudity! Violence! Acting!) to create a mostly engrossing metafiction-y saga.

The sly winks include the casting of sharply drawn characters. Former James Bond Timothy Dalton and former Bond girl Eva Green play the leads. He’s good as Sir Malcolm Murray, an imperialist explorer on a redemption quest. She’s great as Vanessa Ives, a spiritualist with a loathe/lust relationship with her very real demons. They’re mopey Avengers working X-Files in the Twilight Underworld of fin de siècle London, a foggy realm jacked with Ripper fear and scourged with undead neck-peckers. Providing muscle: Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a haunted hunk who’s parlayed a violent past into a showbiz career. He’s American, natch.

Here be other brand-name dragons, too. Their stories steal the show and give it some sensual soul. There’s Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), desperate to vanquish death with Fringe science, plus an impossibly beautiful Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), a decadent aesthete who gets off on girls with consumption coughing blood on him.

Writer-showrunner John Logan robs many graves and comes thisclose to ripping off Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Yet I dig Penny Dreadful as a twisted romance about our twisted romance with dark fantasy. It’s a Frankenstory made with borrowed bits and recycled parts that could evolve into its own vibrant creation. B