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Featured TV on DVD Review: Penny Dreadful: Season One

October 12th, 2014

Penny Dreadful: Season One - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

Penny Dreadful debuted on Showtime in May with its first season ending at the end of June. Normally, TV on DVD releases come out just in time for the next season to begin, but it is coming out now, likely to take advantage of the Christmas shopping season. Was this a smart move? Is it worth checking out? Or is the competition for TV on DVD releases much too strong at this time of year?

Before we get to the show, the first image you see on the menu is of an upside down cross, which has been associated with devil worship for centuries. However, it is the Cross of St. Peter, a holy symbol. When Saint Peter was crucified, he didn't want to be crucified the same as Jesus was, so he asked to be crucified upside down. This has nothing to do with the quality of the show. It's just something that bugs me.

The Show

Penny Dreadful is set in Victorian London, and takes its name from the term used to described serialized stories of a lurid nature. The show combines many of the famous British literary characters of the day into one universe, including Dracula, Doctor Frankenstein, Dorian Grey, and others. This is not the first time a story like this has been told.

The TV series begins with a mother and daughter being kidnapped and later found brutally murdered. The crime scene is so gruesome, that the public fears Jack the Ripper has returned. After the opening, we see Vanessa Ives praying and hearing voices and seeing signs of some evil out there. She then goes to Ethan Chandler, a sharpshooter who spins tall tales for crowds. She hires him for a job, one that is of an important nature, but one she can't discuss with him in public. He arrives at the agreed upon time and location and the pair of them meet Sir Micheal Murray. Recently, his daughter, Mina, was kidnapped and he's come to the lair of a creature, a vampire, to rescue her. Unfortunately, she's not there. After they kill the vampire, and the brides it has been making, they take the corpse to a Doctor Victor Frankenstein. At first he refuses to help them and instead insults their intelligence. However, as soon as he sees the creature, he becomes very intrigued. When he cuts into him to perform an autopsy, he finds Egyptian Hieroglyphics. They take them to an Egyptologist, Ferdinand Lyle. He is immediately intrigued and offers to help, but first asks Sir Murray and Vanessa to a séance.

Vanessa asks Ethan to stay and work for her and Sir Murray. She also tells him a wise man would refuse her offer and pretend what he saw last night never existed. At first he decides to do the wise thing. Later, Sir Murray approaches Doctor Frankenstein with the same proposal. He agrees to join Sir Murray in his endeavor, in part because his scientific curiosity has been piqued, but mostly because he needs the money to fund his own experiments. (His name is Frankenstein, so you don't need me to spell out what he is doing.) In the second episode, we meet Dorian Gray, who we first see as he hires a prostitute, Brona Croft, who is dying of consumption (tuberculosis). This would normally be a turn-off for most people, but not Dorian Gray. Later, Dorian meets Vanessa, at Ferdinand's séance, there's an instant connection.

However, something happens at this séance that is too far into spoiler territory. Obviously the TV show is using the classics of Dracula, Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, etc., so there are certain parts are not spoilers. On the other hand, the specifics they employ are, so it is best to end the plot summary there.

I'm of two minds when it comes to Penny Dreadful. On the one hand, the acting is excellent and the show is very atmospheric, while the writing is mostly good. Mostly. Not every character is developed enough to be engaging. As a result, there are certain storylines that drag and this sucked the life out of the show in a few too many episodes. Sir Micheal Murray trying to save his daughter is the heart and soul of the show and it is a major asset. Doctor Frankenstein teaching his creation and learning perhaps he made a mistake is likewise a highlight of the season. (Also, the reveal of Doctor Frankenstein's monster is handled very well.) On the other hand, I really can't think of anything this show does that makes it unique. A few years ago, a TV show that uses a number of famous monsters in one plot would be unique. However, now there's a glut of similar shows. True Blood just ended, but there's Salem, Hemlock Grove, Haven, Once Upon A Time, The Strain, etc. There are almost as many shows with supernatural themes, how could I forget Supernatural, as there were police procedurals at the peak of that genre's popularity.

Overall, it is a good show and if you like the genre, it is worth checking out. However, it isn't a must see TV series and if you like the genre, you might have too many other choices out there to pick this one. There are only so many hours in a day, after all.

The Extras

The extras on the DVD / Blu-ray seem impressive at first, as there are nine featurettes listed on the back of the Blu-ray box. However, the longest is less than four minutes and the majority of them are under two and a half minutes. Worse still, the Blu-ray has two episodes of Ray Donavan, which isn't an extra, it's an ad for the Showtime. They keep doing this and I hate it. Normally, this is just annoying, but this time it goes beyond annoying. The eight episodes of Penny Dreadful and the little extras that are on the Blu-ray would fit on two discs. Including the Ray Donavan episodes meant it had to be sold on three discs, which increases the cost of the Blu-ray. People are being asked to pay more so they can see a TV show that they didn't ask for.

The technical presentation is excellent, for the most part. The show's atmosphere sometimes requires a softer focus to be used, but as I've said many times in the past, that's an aesthetic choice and you can't use that as a real knock against the transfer. This is especially true in the darker scenes, and there are plenty of dark scenes. Likewise, colors are muted, but not because there is a problem with the transfer, but because Victorian England wasn't known for flashiness. The audio is more active with plenty of activity in the surround sound speakers. Victorian England might not have been colorful, but it was bustling. There are also plenty of directional effects during the actions scenes, while the dialogue is never drowned out.

The Blu-ray costs $28, which is $3 or 12% more than the DVD. That's a great deal.

The Verdict

Penny Dreadful pulls from a number of sources, too many sources and this causes Season One to drag in places. Additionally, there's not much in terms of extras on the DVD or Blu-ray and the overall value is good, but not great. I really wanted to love this show, so perhaps my expectations were just too high.

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Filed under: Video Review, Timothy Dalton, Eva Green, Josh Hartnett, Harry Treadaway, Reeve Carney, Simon Russell Beale, Olivia Llewellyn, Billie Piper