This essay was commissioned by May Walsh, who requested an essay about Penny Dreadful season 1. You can learn more about commissions here.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a young woman buys a house. It is haunted, perhaps by a ghost or only by the heavy guilt and terrible misdeeds of those who came before; the difference is ultimately inconsequential, as the prose has already wrapped its way around you and started strangling. That’s gothic fiction. Of course, the misdeeds might just as well be crimes of existing while queer or mentally ill, depending on the author. Gothic fiction is a genre preoccupied with looking at the “other:” other than male, other than white, or straight, or able-bodied—and finding them frightening.
Over time those parameters began to involve. Those who were defined as Other began to make their own entries into the genre. It became a place where writers could depict characters like themselves, whether that meant being able to push against their accepted societal roles or being allowed to exist at all. As long as it ended in a neat cap that reassured the audience that proper order could be restored, any number of things were possible in the meanwhile.
Crossing the genre over with the concept of fanfiction seems a natural fit, given that fanfiction (at least in its modern incarnation) also sprang from women, queer folk, and other marginalized identities looking to write themselves into texts that excluded them. And so we have Penny Dreadful, a show gleefully intent on elbowing you in the ribs with its references while also solemnly assuring you that it has something to say. While the first season frames its plot through a discussion of women and the various ways in which they’re abused, it’s muddled by clumsy execution.
There was no way we could pass over the first and biggest work about AIDS — a work of art that’s also damned funny in the midst of the bleakness.
Well, Fox. You did it. And by “it,” I mean you scrubbed and sanded one of the flagship pieces of alternative queer media until it was 87% heterosexual. Congratufuckinglations, Murdoch and co., I knew you could do. I just wanted to believe you had more class.
Let me back up a little bit.
I am without sufficient breath to detail the extent to which my life has been shaped by one Stephen T Colbert, DFA. Though he may never see this document (hence why I have idled toward a 3rd person styling, for ease of reading by the literally dozens of people who pass these pages), I wanted nonetheless to mark the occasion of The Colbert Report’s final week of broadcasting. It’s still my hope to meet the man someday, to shake his hand and (with minimal stammering and tears) impart to him my gratitude and admiration. But for the moment, this eulogy will have to suffice.
When my older brother was a graduate student, he gave me the single most appropriate gift one can give to their junior high aged sibling: a copy of America the Book. Separated by almost two generations, I was constantly in a hurry to be as well informed and sophisticated as I was certain he was. Anything to be included. So I studied that book religiously (including, hot-faced and slightly ill, the senators), and when he was home from the frozen wastelands of North Dakota we would watch The Daily Show. Every time my brother would laugh I’d stare harder at the screen, trying to will satirical knowledge into my mind. This is how I began getting into arguments with other 9th graders about the justifiability of the Iraq War. There was an addictive quality to knowing things, and eventually I watched even when my brother wasn’t home.
Election night, in the middle of a bit involving romantically shared pizza and a gunshot. That’s when I found Stephen Colbert.