TV Reviews

Netflix Review: The Frankenstein Chronicles Is a Good Show With a Bad Title

A new TV series called The Frankenstein Chronicles randomly popped up in the featured section atop Netflix yesterday. What could this show possibly be about? Is this the I, Tonya of Frankenstein stories where we get to revisit the classic tale but from alternating points of view, the Monster’s versus Dr. Frankenstein’s versus possibly even Igor’s? Is it some kind of travelogue chronicling the Monster’s mental anguish while traveling the world? Better yet, does he get to open every episode like a CW superhero but instead of launching into some pithy “My name is Oliver Queen….” explainer he simply mutters “Fire bad” with differing intonations like his own personal “I am Groot”? Inquiring/sarcastic minds want to know.


The Frankenstein Chronicles is none of those things. This has nothing to do with the popular Universal version of the Monster. In fact, neither the Monster nor Dr. Frankenstein even pops up. But Mary Shelley does. In what plays as an engagingly clever historical murder mystery, The Frankenstein Chronicles imagines a copycat killer mimicking the plot of Frankenstein in the immediate years after its initial publication.

The Premise: In 1822, i.e., four years after the publication of Frankenstein, the mutilated corpse of a young girl shows up on the shores of London. Correction: make that mutilated corpses, plural. What initially appears to be a single girl is actually the stitched together remains of eight different children. Inspector John Marlott (Sean Bean), the river police officer with the grave misfortune of being the one to stumble upon this disturbing scene, is removed from his wide-ranging duties by the Home Secretary and assigned the sole case of finding the person responsible.

Marlott is told to keep everything hush-hush for the Home Secretary believes what they have uncovered is an effort by some disgruntled soul to put an end to the Anatomy Act, a key piece of legislation aiming to modernize medicine by ending the illegal trade of corpses and codifying the practice of dissecting donated bodies. Those opposed to the Act do so on religious and class-based grounds, believing the new advances in medical science to be an affront to God and the specifics of the Act a way for the rich to prey on the poor even after the death. So, no pressure, Marlott, but the entirety of medical progress might rest on your shoulders.

It’s not a job Marlott particular wants or asks for. Indeed, seeing the girl on the shore touches a bit of an emotional open wound and causes him to relive memories of the dead wife and child he’d rather forget. But, unable to say no he does as he’s told and sets about the investigation with the help of a black police officer (Richie Campbell) deemed expendable by his superiors. Soon, they are both following their few leads straight into London’s underworld, a place full of vagrant children, threatening Fagin-like figures, and seemingly relentless misery, but what they find surprisingly puts them on a head-on collision course with some of the literary and medical minds of the era.

How Mary Shelley Factors Into The Story: Though he’s initially oblivious to it, Marlott quickly discovers the similarities between his case and the plot of a recent book which had already been turned into a controversial play. He’s uncertain if the book’s author, Mary Shelley is personally involved or if she might be able to direct him to possible suspects or if she’s a completely innocent author whose work has been bastardized by a radical, but he has to know and she’s none too pleased to hear his questions.

She is pretty much constantly throwing 19th-century shade Marlott’s way

Played by Anna Maxwell Martin, Shelley’s presence in the story and the show’s reflection on those early years when her work wasn’t as widely known or respected is a large part of why this is called The Frankenstein Chronicles. However, the specifics of the book soon gives way to the specifics of the personal tragedies (poor Mary had lost so many people at such a young age) and societal movement which inspired its writing. Get ready for a rather illuminating crash course in the history of Galvanism and cameos from people like Lord Byron.

Where Did This Show Come From?: Similar to Netflix’s January sensation The End of the F***ing World, The Frankenstein Chronicles is actually a British show which has already aired across the pond. The first season premiered on ITV in 2015, and the second season just finished its run on that same network two months ago. Both seasons, comprising six episodes each, are now on Netflix, flying under the Netflix Original banner. A&E had, at one point, purchased the rights to the show, but then the network largely abandoned original programming and never aired a single episode of Frankenstein Chronicles. Their loss is Netflix’s gain. As of this writing, I just finished the first season.

Is It Horror? Thriller? Drama?: Actually, kind of all three. The premise necessitates plenty of horrific imagery, the investigation leads to several thrilling brushes with death, and the drama comes from Marlott’s ongoing emotional and physical anguish (I’ll just say mercury treatment had its side effects). On top of that, they even sneak in a little bit of class commentary via the controversy over the elites preying on the poor for medical research purposes. Whether the story will ever tip over into supernatural territory inevitably hangs over everything, largely because when you put Frankenstein in the title it creates a certain set of expectations (or at least it did for me). But, really, repeated shots of severed limbs and a syphilis sufferer’s disfigured face combined with the show’s inescapable air of dread provides all the horror you need.

Is It Worth Watching?: Absolutely. What begins as a grisly, but simple procedure-based crime drama dovetails nicely into fascinating reflections on both the woman behind the birth of a horror icon and a key transitional moment in modern medicine. There are dark turns and thrilling sequences along the way and a gripping central performance from Bean as the beleaguered investigator suffering an emotional crisis while simply trying to get to the bottom of an increasingly complex case.

Recommended If You Like: Ripper Street, The Alienist, The Knick, Penny Dreadful, From Hell, and, most obviously, Frankenstein, particularly the original novel and the Royal National Theater’s 2011 adaptation directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller.

What about you? Have you watched any of The Frankenstein Chronicles yet? Or was the title too clunky to pique your interest? Or are you simply stunned I made it all this way through the review without ever once making a tired “Sean Bean always dies in his movies” joke? Well…damn. I guess I kind of just made that joke. Look what you made me do! Leave a comment and I’ll forgive you.


    1. To be fair, this show technically came first since it actually premiered on ITV in 2015, but I’m with you. I’m just now seeing it for the first time thanks to Netflix, and the “eh, this is kind of like The Alienist” thought has been really hard to shake. Do you prefer one to the other? Right now, I’m leaning more toward Frankenstein Chronicles.

      1. I prefer the plot of The Alienist with the actors from Frankenstein Chronicles. I don’t actually dislike Luke Evans or Dakota Fanning, but Sean Beam is a better actor than them.

    1. I can see why. At last check, Germany is third in the overall medal count and tied with Norway for most Gold Medals. I mean, western civilization now turns its weary eye toward Germany and Canada for leadership since the US is imploding, and wouldn’t you know it Germany and Canada are both ahead of the US in the Olympic medal count, a wildly imperfect, but historical measurement of greatness. But then there’s Norway up there at #1. That doesn’t fit as nicely into the little scenario I was setting up. So, um, I’ll just say good for them.

      1. Well it is not unusual for Germany to lead the medal count (there is still a good chance to get past Norway since Germany is really good in bob and naturally there is still the Ice hockey final, but then nobody expected the team to even made past the quarter finals, or to take out world champion Sweden or to take out freaking Canada, so they have already won, no matter if it ends up being silver in the end). Norway is just really good in the ski-cross competitions, always has been.

        Anyway, yeah, it is naturally fun to watch and see them win (plus, I genuinely like watching Biathlon and some of the other Winter Sports which are just more interesting than the stuff they do in the summer).

      2. I was going to follow up with a question about which specific events you like to watch, but you covered that nicely.

        “I genuinely like watching Biathlon and some of the other Winter Sports which are just more interesting than the stuff they do in the summer).”

        Same here. Between the two, I prefer the set of competitions featured during the Winter games versus the Summer.

      3. It’s mostly Biathlon and the luge/bob competitions, because we f… rule in them. But then, we also rule in ski jumping in most years, and I think that competition is really boring. I used to like Figure Skating, but that was back before it became a “who jumps higher and later” competition and Yagudin was still setting the ice on fire…but then, the German’s pairs program this year was stunning, maybe the most beautiful I have ever seen (and I don’t say that just because it was the German pair, it was so good, they managed to reach gold after only being on place four after the short program….you need to watch it, that one will be remembered).

        Also, Curling is kind of fascinating…sadly no German teams this year, so I didn’t get to see that much of it.

      4. Of the ones you mentioned … Because the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding thing happened when I was just the right age and still forming my entertainment preferences, I now have an inescapable love of watching figure skating. I can’t speak to the specifics or athleticism of it the way I can for baseball or football, but I just love watching it, even though trends you described are pretty spot-on.

        Also, I, too, share your fascination with Curling. Sadly, I’ve only known about the sport for a couple of years now. My introduction, sadly, came via an old episode of Due South. Incidentally, Due South’s Paul Gross made an entirely Canadian movie about a group of amateur Curlers. It’s not bad. Anyway….I have noticed this year’s coverage of the Olympics seems to be obsessing over Curling more so than in year’s past. Hate it. Love it. Nobody can get enough of this peculiar sport.

      5. Are you in the UK? Because than it would make sense…the UK had curlers with chances to win, but not really a lot of competitors anyone else. And the US naturally had the surprise win, so it naturally paid attention, just like we over here in Germany paid more attention to ice hockey than ever (and for one glorious minute it seemed like the impossible would happen).

      6. No, I’m in the US, which did indeed go through a Curling obsession during these recent Olympics. From what I can tell, that obsession has already faded. It seems like curling goes through this same cycle every couple of years. Everyone just forgets about it until the next time it pops up in the Olympics and then has a “ohhhhh, yeah, that thing” reaction along with a “hold on, what’s this sport we’re talking about now? And the Canadians really, really love this?” reaction from the newbies.

      7. Well, you won gold…it is always more interesting if you get a medal. I have also watched more Icehockey than ever in the last week of the Olympics.

  1. I love Sean Bean, he does a great job, as he was also Ned Stark in Game of Thrones. Im hoping for more seasons! This is a execellent watch.

    1. “This is an excellent watch.”

      I agree. I also appreciated that the seasons were so short. No time for any filler. Just telling the story over 6 episodes per season. It helped it feel so compelling that I made it through that first season with ease.

      As for any future seasons, at the moment I don’t see any news about a season 3, but the show has also only been on Netflix for a month or so at this point. Now that this is no longer just an ITV program but also one carried by Netflix around the world there’s always the possibility of a third season co-produced by ITV and Netflix or just a third season made by Netflix alone. But I don’t really know. If it happens, however it happens, I’ll definitely be interested.

      Also, agreed, Sean Bean is great here.

  2. I love this show. It’s not for everyone. You have to be in the mood or in a certain frame of mind to enjoy the series. It’s quite dark and melancholic but gracefully hopeful. The season 2 episode 4 for me currently contains one of the most heart-rending scenes I’ve ever watched in TV or film. The buildup from season 1 up to that scene resulted to a most bittersweet vindication. I don’t like that moment of course but morbidly “it’s not without a certain beauty”. I guess the mood of the series throughout tends to give you that kind of thinking as you go along and get lost in it.

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