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Penny Dreadful: The Complete First Season

Paramount // Unrated // October 14, 2014
List Price: $48.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted October 12, 2014 | E-mail the Author
The Season:

In the 19th Century, the period where Showtime's new television series Penny Dreadful takes place, sensationalist pieces of literature were cranked out to satisfy lowbrow literature demands, cheaply printed and frequently featuring even cheaper shocks and drama for ostentatious escapes from folks' everyday lives. And yeah, they cost a penny. There's the urge to make assumptions about the new property from writer/creator John Logan based on its premise and name: he's stitched together pieces of gothic literature from Victorian England -- from Mary Shelley to Oscar Wilde and touches of Bram Stoker -- into a horror-focused patchwork that, at first blush, seems like an edgier cable-channel answer to the kitschy fable mash-up of Once Upon a Time. Unexpectedly, the supernatural dreadfulness of this premiere season is rooted in perceptive, eerie drama above knee-jerk thrills and lavish grotesqueries (despite having its own share of those), reaching for higher-brow entertainment within the darkness and, more often than not, grasping it.

So, no, Penny Dreadful isn't the name of Eva Green's character in the show, though the label "dreadful" might slowly come to identify the depths of Vanessa Ives' cursed nature as the premiere season moves forward. She's the partner to weathered explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), whose proficiency has shifted to hunting down supernatural beings after his birth daughter and Vanessa's close childhood friend, Mina, had been captured by them. With the help of Vanessa's own connection to the world between the living and the dead, between heaven and hell, she and Malcolm have gradually pinpointed the general location of Mina's capturers, yet they're undermanned and lacking physiological expertise in battling against them. Enter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), an American ex-soldier and sharpshooter who's slumming it by swindling audiences in a roadshow; and enter Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), a research doctor whose knowledge and experiments in physiology go beyond the realm of understanding. While hot on the trail of Malcolm's daughter, they're also sorting out their own personal demons ... most figurative, some literal.

The dark, foggy maze of Victorian-era London looms as the ideal atmosphere for Penny Dreadful, an appropriate haven for vampires, demonic possession, and other elements of the occult to roam underneath. It's the kind of credible setting where an illegal gambling and animal-fighting arena lurks around the corner from the local horror theater, where tuberculosis runs rampant and bar fights typically play out without much intervention. Icons from gothic literature reside in such close proximity here that they'll feasibly interact with one another, where Dorian Gray's (Reeve Carney) den of hedonism and self-absorption stands vaguely adjacent to Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory and Van Helsing's (David Warner) personal office. Typically, that kind of proximity might be a cause for concern, as if the series could transform into a stream of self-indulgent, lightweight references to other works, but writer/creator John Logan -- whose precision brought Sweeney Todd and Hugo to the big screen -- fuses them together into a largely-seamless environment. They all have their purposes in this Victorian London, and discovering who they are in Logan's context becomes a source of excitement instead of groan-worthy identification.

The reason the melting pot of horror works in Penny Dreadful is because writer/creator Logan uses the ghoulish aspects of the story as a dramatic base instead of purely for scares or gaudy name-dropping, and he's unafraid to let its topics extend into prolonged macabre conversations. While the series has its moments of shock-value -- vampire attacks, demonic possession, bodies literally torn in half -- nearly every single one of 'em arises on the steam of the characters' personal grievances and skeletons in their closets. Through the writing's use of the supernatural, Penny Dreadful touches on musings about guilt, belief in higher powers, immortality, playing God and the impact of human nature. Granted, much of the "deeper" content employed in the series originates in source novels and other depictions of the same types of conflicts, distilled from Mary Shelley's perspective on humankind and Oscar Wilde's grasp on mortality; yet, there's reverence in the way Logan evokes and interlaces those ideas in this tweaked glimpse at Frankenstein's creations and Dorian Gray's perception of his enduring youth.

As one might suspect of preexisting stories going on in tandem with a new narrative, most of the recognizable elements of Penny Dreadful play out as peripheral, detached happenings alongside the clear-cut plot of Malcolm's search for his daughter, as well as the investigation into the suspected Egyptian origins of her other-worldly captors. Because of that, the show's focus occasionally meanders as it tries to find the right balance between the primary and the secondary ... and, really, it's alright that this happens, because the collage of individual stories shapes the show into a rich, peculiar slice-of-life take on Victorian horror that reflects on the serialized nature of the "penny dreadful" books themselves. Like this, the characters have room to breathe and expand as they pop in and out of Malcolm's hunt: Chandler's compassion and secrecy, Frankenstein's youthful ambition and remorse, and Dorian Gray's earnest hunger for new experiences all become involving diversions, adding complexity to their interactions once a new lead emerges in the hunt for Mina and draws (some of) them together.

For all its successes, though, it's hard to imagine Penny Dreadful working without the enigmatic and foreboding presence of Vanessa Ives, along with Eva Green's gripping performance as its foundation. While Josh Hartnett, Harry Treadaway, Rory Kinnear as Frankenstein's Creature, and the rest of the cast convincingly fill out their roles, there's a calculated air of mystery surrounding Green's Ms. Ives that adds necessary dimensions of complexity -- and complication -- to the search for Malcolm's daughter. At first, she seems like little more than the explorer's right-hand woman and paranormal connection; however, that perception quickly shifts once the extent of her link with darker forces emerges, starting in the second episode, "Seance", and methodically leading into another that's devoted entirely to revealing the origin of her, uh, powers. Eva Green has explored the depths of mania before, from Kingdom of Heaven to 300: Rise of an Empire, yet neither compare to the demands placed on her for moments of Ms. Ives' psycho-sexual disturbance and interaction with the darker spectrum of existence, easily culminating into the most bracing and fleshed-out element of this season's presence.

While John Logan saves a few mysteries and conflicts to further unpack in future seasons of Penny Dreadful, there's a commendable amount of finality at the end of its premiere run, resulting in an inclusive eight-episode arc that reveals a few surprises that were tucked away in its ruffled sleeves. Though, the finale, "Grand Guignol", does suffer because of Logan's inclination towards resoluton, rushing to tie up (or dismantle) pertinent loose ends that sometimes results in abrupt shifts in character attitude to reach them. It also, however, sustains a brisk, tension-driven pace full of blood, gunfire, and thirsty vampires that makes it a grand finale, forcing these characters to endure experiences that'll carry over beyond the resolution to Mina's disappearance. No matter the next season's dreadful villain -- confirmed to be a "familiar face" -- the depths of these coiled and secretive characters will be enough of a reason to continue following their troubled existence in Victorian London.

The Blu-ray:

Paramount Home Entertainment and CBS/Showtime unleash Penny Dreadful: The Complete First Season onto Blu-ray in a standard three-disc presentation, with each disc blue-topped and artless in its swinging-tray case. A small advertising insert has been included, but the Episode Guide resides on the printed inner design. Promo shots featuring the cast adorn the inner and outer artwork, coming together into a light but attractive Blu-ray package. The episodes are divvied up in a way that frees up plenty of space on the last disc for the special features: three on Disc One, four on Disc Two, and the finale on Disc Three.

Video and Audio:

Penny Dreadful expectedly runs a bit shadowy as it weaves through the hazy, dingy Victorian London landscape, but that provides an intriguing challenge for both the series' cinematography and for Paramount's high-definition treatments. While there are moments of slight color blocking in the way streetlamps disperse light, as well as some darker-than-anticipated moments of heavy contrast that almost submerge details, the collection of eight 1.78:1-framed, 1080p AVC digital transfers showcase capable contrast, ample fine details, and nimble rushes of color underneath the frequently subdued and grubby palette. Textures in the robust costume/makeup work, amid close-ups, and through the rich wood grains and windswept stone walls offer crisp, moody details that react splendidly to pools of luminescence; you can discern the outline of bricks in distanced shots, along with the translucence of drapery and the notches in artwork frames. Skin tones, dark woods, and candlelight are defiantly a bit warmer under even the coolest of conditions, yet always suitable to the photography's intentions. And then, there are numerous sequences that are, simply, stunning on their own, such as the entirety of the seance. Despite a few very mild digital hindrances, Penny Dreadful is quite handsome indeed.

Ever defiant in their audio preference, Paramount have grafted a series of robust, evenhanded 5.1 Dolby TrueHD tracks onto each of the episodes, and it's hard to find any ghoulishness to gripe about within them. Gunshots, the growling of wolves, flesh being split apart and heavy thuds within the Grand Guignol theater's operation offer firm and organic sound elements. Other atmospheric effects of the era's vintage -- the bustle of street activity, the creaks of a boat and seaside commotion, the ambience of a cramped theater -- let sound elements travel to the rear channels for an encompassing design that fits the series' tone. More significantly, the delivery of the show's lines of dialogue showcase this finely-balanced tempo that respects the attitude of those speaking: the subtle rasp of Eva Green's sultry voice remains clear as a whistle, while the intimidating rumble of Timothy Dalton's tempo and Josh Hartnett's middle-of-the-road tenor shrewdly use the bass channel. A few dialogue sequences flirt with potential clipping, but the TrueHD track never lets it get out of control, and whatever mediocrity that might've incurred gets overcome by the unyielding, lush atmosphere it concocts. Spanish 2.0 audio tracks are also available, along with optional English and English SDH subtitles.

Special Features:

Almost all of Penny Dreadful's episodes fit onto Disc One and Disc Two and are void of any supplemental content, freeing up plenty of space on Disc Three for extras (though that, of course, reveals that there aren't any audio commentaries). Unfortunately, though not really unexpected of Showtime, they've also crammed in two preview episodes of the new show Ray Donovan, leaving the rest of the space for a series of brief Video Production Blogs (which can already be found on Showtime's Penny Dreadful blog), most of which last about two minutes and feature behind-the-scenes clips and interviews. What is a Penny Dreadful (1:54, 16x9 HD) quickly introduces the concept of the weekly publications of the 19th Century and the show's intent in recapturing (and modifying), Literary Roots (2:14, 16x9 HD) features John Logan expressing his inspiration from Frankenstein and Dracula to create his own "penny dreadfuls", and Coming Together (2:06, 16x9 HD) pulls back the curtain on the pre-production process in Edinburgh.

From there, the blogs sink their teeth into the show amid its filming, creation, and historical essence. The Artisans: Part One (2:33, 16x9 HD) and Part 2 (2:13, 16x9 HD) discover the meticulous and rich production design employed in the show, while The Grand Guignol (2:23, 16x9 HD) touches on how John Logan focused on replicating the Victorian modes of entertainment. Prostitution and Sex in the Victorian Era (3:40, 16x9 HD) features author/historian Matthew Sweet teaming up with Dorian Gray actor Reeve Carney to explore the lurid side of how Londoners occupied their time during the period, carrying over Sweet's participation into the British Exploration and the Search for the Nile (2:11, 16x9 HD) piece about the explorers of the period and how they relate to Sir Malcolm's character. Showtime wraps things up with The Science of Medicine (2:50, 16x9), where Matthew Sweet guides a discussion with technical curator Carla Valentine at Barts Pathology Museum in Edinburgh, touching on corset damage to the body and the "resurrection men". All the pieces are dramatic and showy in tone, but there's a lot to embrace within them.

Final Thoughts:

Penny Dreadful goes to show what skilled, evocative writing can do for the concept of bringing recognizable names of literature into one setting. Creator and scribe John Logan cleverly balances familiar Victorian London horror with his own primary plotting involving vampirism, demonic possession, and the realm separating the normal and the supernatural, allowing Eva Green's presence as Vanessa Ives to become its guiding force while macabre subplots play out around the search for explorer Sir Malcolm's daughter. The show's morbid devices are shrewdly crafted from the inside out, hinged on its ability to unsettle the audience with its blend of horror and the pensive drama that spills off it. What results is bizarre, occasionally over-the-top television that's almost always captivating, and knows precisely what needs to end and expand into the next season. Paramount/Showtime's Blu-ray looks and sounds phenomenal, and the cluster of split-up extras are enjoyable to watch while they last. Highly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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