Although it only lasted three seasons, Showtime's Penny Dreadful managed to gather up a decent cult following during its all too short stint on American television. The series, which was co-produced with the UK's Sky channel, opens in the London of 1841. Women are being abducted and murdered, one of the more recent victims a woman named Mina Harker (Olivia Llewellyn). A clairvoyant woman named Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) talks a marksman named Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) into helping her find Mina, with some help from Mina's father, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton). As it turns out, there are vampires afoot and while they make short work of some of them, they don't make short work of all of them. They do, however, manage to bring the corpse of one of the bloodsuckers to Doctor Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) to examine.
As the first season continues, Sir Malcolm dives deeper into the ongoing ‘Ripper' investigation currently causing such a panic, while Frankenstein attempts to re-animate the dead using his scientific methods. Ethan leaves the group, frightened by what he's seen even this early in the game, but of course he returns, but not before becoming fast friends with a deathly ill hooker named Brona Croft (Billie Piper) who, herself, has had a tryst with the inimitable Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney). When Vanessa meets Dorian at a party, they hit it off but before that romance can blossom there is a séance that results in Vanessa becoming possessed! It all ties into an Egyptian doomsday cult, but the search for Mina continues. As the vampire threat becomes more real, Vanessa's obsession with handsome Dorian becomes more intense, despite the fact that her family expects her to marry Mina's brother Peter. As things become tense between Vanessa and Sir Malcom, Abraham Van Helsing (David Warner) enters the fray as the crew close in on Mina. Brona's health continues to deteriorate, Vanessa's possession problems only get worse and just as Ethan is to exorcise her, the Pinkertons show up looking to extradite him.
The episodes that make up Season One are: Night Work / Séance / Ressurection / Demimonde / Closer Than Sisters / What Death Can Join Together / Possession / Grand Guignol
Haunted by the strange presence of Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory), a powerful spiritualist, Vanessa starts to experience creep visions. Meanwhile, Caliban (Rory Kinnear) pressures his creator, Frankenstein, to use his abilities to bring Brona back to life all while starting a new job at a local wax museum. Frankenstein obliges, and Brona is renamed Lily in her new life, while Malcolm and Vanessa try to set things right, tough it's clear that Evelyn holds some sway over the man while her daughter, Hecate Poole (Sarah Greene), uses her knowledge of voodoo in sinister ways while the events of the Mariners' Inn Massacre start to have a ripple effect.
Things brighten up a bit when Vanessa helps Victor get new clothes for Lily, but Vanessa's past comes back to haunt her when she's targeted by a coven of witches. Regardless, she and Malcolm work with his old friend Sembene (Danny Sapani) to try and guard off evil at the mansion, while Dorian gets closer to a woman named Angelique (Jonny Beauchamp). Tensions arise with Victor when he realizes that Vanessa knows what he's been up to, and even more so when Victor realizes that there's ‘something' between Lily and Dorian. Making matters worse, when a full moon rises in the sky, Ethen requests he be chained up and locked away in the basement. Nevertheless, he and Vanessa grow romantically involved, while it turns out that Lily has a dangerous streak in her while Victor and Caliban feud over who the woman really ‘belongs' to. Victor soon finds himself in the unenviable position of having to deal with his the fruits of his experiments while Vanessa considers making a deal with the devil himself.
The episodes that make up Season Two are: Fresh Hell / Verbis Diablo / The Nightcomers / Evil Spirits In Heavenly Places / Above The Vaulted Sky / Glorious Horrors / Little Scorpion / Memento Mori / And Hell Itself My Only Foe / And They Were Enemies
If the first two seasons weren't complicated enough, the third and final batch of episodes sees the core group split. Vanessa is dealing with severe depression while Frankenstein has teamed up with Dr. Henry Jekyll (Shazad Latif). Ethan and Hecate have fled to the United States, Malcolm has wound up in Zanzibar and Caliban is stranded in Antarctica. All of this just in time for Dracula's (Christian Camargo) arrival in London, complete with his assistant Renfield (Samuel Barnett) running reconnaissance for the king of the vampires.
Meanwhile, Lily helps out an abused prostitute named Justine (Jessica Barden) and seeks out to get vengeance for what has been done to her, Caliban returns to London and things basically just go insane from here on out until it's resolved surprisingly well in the series finale.
The episodes that make up Season Three are: The Day Tennyson Died / Predators Far And Near / Good And Evil Braided Be / A Blade Of Grass / This World Is Our Hell / No Beast So Fierce / Ebb Tide / Perpetual Night / The Blessed Dark
This series is based around a gimmick: taking old, well known characters (many of whom conveniently exist in the public domain) and basing stories around them. It's simple, but it works and while it is a gimmick to be sure, the writing staff has done such a good job at creating unpredictable and unexpected exploits for these characters to go through that you don't mind so much. The writing here is sharp, it's smart and it's engaging. The characters are very well fleshed out and the talented and interesting cast plays their respective parts well. Eva Green is fairly hypnotic here, a beautiful woman to be sure, but so good in her part regardless of what each episode's script might call for. Whether she's dealing with a romantic scene of struggling with demonic possession she's in fine form pretty much from start to finish. Throw in some equally talented actors like Josh Hartnett, Billie Piper (who steals many of the scenes she appears in, particularly once she's ‘become' Lily), Harry Treadaway and Timothy Dalton and you can quickly and easily see how this would be worth watching for the cast alone.
Just as impressive, however, are the production values. This is a gorgeous looking show loaded with plenty of gothic atmosphere and wonderfully shadowy sets and locations. The costumes are perfect, the set design is as impressive as it is intricately detailed and while some of the CGI used in the effects work is clearly digital, most of it too holds up very well (which is important as the show is plenty gory). As such, the series has a lot of atmosphere and a really intense look to it that serves as the perfect backdrop for all of the insanity that plays out over the three seasons. The series also never panders to its audience. While it may draw inspiration from Hammer Horror films and the penny dreadful stories after which it was obviously named, the series manages to treat its subject matter with respect and simultaneously, its audience as well. The series is also well paced, meaning that each episode is quite exciting and interesting but at the same time it manages to get where it needs to go without rushing too much, even, surprisingly enough, in its final season.
The complete series of Penny Dreadful arrives on Blu-ray featuring AVC encoded 1080p high definition widescreen in 1.78.1 transfers, just as it was shown on TV when originally broadcast. There's not much to complain about here at all, the episodes all look great in high definition. Some very mild aliasing can be spotted here and there but otherwise the image is strong, nicely detailed and quite colorful. Sets and costumes look great and there's soli shadow detail here too, darker scenes thankfully don't break up into compression artifacts. Skin tones, of which a lot are on display, look lifelike and there's plenty of texture to ogle and detail to appreciate both in the foreground and the background of pretty much every shot.
The primary audio option for the first two seasons this set is an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix. And that track? It's a doozy. The show features plenty of shoot outs and explosions and so we get a lot of rear channel and surround activity throughout the series. The low end offers up some nice rumble to anchor gunshots and explosions without burying the performers while the dialogue stays clean, clear and always discernible. There are no problems with any hiss or distortion anywhere in the mix and the score has some nice resonance to it and is spread out nicely to add some dramatic flair here and there. Some of the quieter moments offer up some nice subtle background details here and there but where the mix is at its best is during the more intense moments of the series, this is good stuff. Optional English closed captioning is provided as is a Spanish language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo option for the first two seasons. Season Three, amazingly enough, has a Dolby Atmos 7.1 track available and it too sounds excellent, with clear and concise use of the surround channels throughout the episodes and fantastic clarity in terms of dialogue and score reproduction.
Extras for Season One are limited to a twenty-minute collection of short featurettes that detail different aspects of the series: What Is A Penny Dreadful? / Literary Roots / Coming Together / The Artisans Part One: Set Decoration And Props / The Artisans Part Two: Production Design / The Grand Guignol / Prostitution And Sex In The Victorian Age / British Exploration And The Search For The Nile / The Science Of Medicine. These are all fairly interesting but they don't go nearly as in-depth as you might hope for. Also included with Season One's extras are the first two episodes of Showtime's Ray Donovan series. Not related to Penny Dreadful at all, obviously, but there for those who want to taste test the series.
Extras for Season Two are slightly more impressive than the first batch, starting with a collection of six video production blogs. Welcome Back spends three minutes with the cast and crew who are clearly enthusiastic for the second season, Choreography is a three minute glimpse into the dance scenes that take place in S2, The Blood Ball is a two and a half minute bit that explores the bloody ball that serves as a series highlight, Brona Becomes Lily is two and a half minutes with Billie Piper, makeup artist Clare Lambe, hairstylist Sevlene Roddy and costume designer Gabriella Pescucci to discuss the transformation of Piper's character, Waxwork Museum gives us three minutes on the set of the wax museum used in the show and Werewolf Prosthetics is a two minute piece that talks up the werewolf in the show.
The eight minute Dreadfuls Roundtable With Reeve Carney is a roundtable discussion hosted by Carney in which a group of Penny Dreadful devotees gush about the series, while History Of The Occult takes two minutes to give us a very simple, very basic top down view of its subject matter. Additionally we get character profiles that run one to two minutes in length for Vanessa Ives, Dorian Gray, Sir Malcolm Murray, Evelyn Poole, Victor Frankenstein, Sembene, The Creature and Lily.
Season Three's supplemental department primarily consists of four short featurettes: Hecate's Witch Prosthetics is three minutes with the witches used in the show and their makeup team, The Making Of Dr. Jekyll's Lab shows off the set design employed in the show for two and a half minutes, Vanessa's Costumes is a three minute segment that details the wardrobe for the character while The Dead Zoo spends three minutes with Samuel Barnett at the Natural History Museum in Dublin. We also get quick one to two minute updated character profiles for Ethan Chandler, Sir Malcolm and Kaetenay, Dr. Sweet, Dr. Seward and Renfield, The Creature, Dr. Victor Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll, Dorian, Lily and Justine and Catriona Hartdegen.
The complete series Blu-ray release of Penny Dreadful is light on extras but does present the series in high definition with excellent audio and video quality. As to the series itself, if it was taken before its time at least it goes out with a bang, rather than a whimper. Featuring some great acting from a fine fast, really impressive production values and just some genuniely solid storytelling, this show was a whole lot of fun and this set is a great way to revisit it (or experience it for the first time). Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.