Blu-ray Review Drama

Of Monsters, Men and a Blu-ray Review: Penny Dreadful: The Complete First Season

November 1, 2014Ben Mk


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Green goes gothic...

With a literary mash-up like Penny Dreadful — which interweaves the gothic tapestries of Bram Stoker's "Dracula", Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" — viewers are bound to draw comparisons to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing. But though the Showtime series' basic premise does share a resemblance to those big-budget misfires, its creator, John Logan, manages to sets his show apart from that which has come before. And he does so with two simple words: Eva Green.

   

The Show Green plays the series' central protagonist, but contrary to what you may be inclined to think, the show isn't named for her. It actually borrows its title from the type of pulp fiction stories popularized in 19th century England (where it's set), with Green's Vanessa Ives being a spiritualist with a talent for communicating with the supernatural entities that dwell in the Demimonde, the world halfway between the living and the dead.

The year is 1891, and when we first meet her, Vanessa is looking to recruit someone to aid with some unspecified "night work". She finds the ideal candidate in Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), an American sharpshooter — and serial womanizer — at a traveling Wild West themed carnival. Apparently willing to do anything for a buck (or, in this case, a pound), he learns the true nature of this night work after she introduces him to her compatriot, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), a former explorer who's sole obsession as of late is to locate his missing daughter, Mina, whom he fears has fallen prey to some creatures of the night.

Soon, the three of them are off traipsing through Victorian London, hunting down vampires with the aid of a couple of allies: Doctor Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), here a young academic questing for the secret of immortality, and Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), an enthusiast of the pleasures of the flesh, not to mention mind-altering hallucinogens.

Of course, Frankenstein and Gray aren't the only literary figures who make an appearance. For you can't have the good doctor without his creature, played here by Rory Kinnear, who portrays the iconic monster not as a monosyllabic oaf, but rather as a highly-articulate and tortured soul, whose bouts of rage and violence are fuelled by the bitterness he feels for being abandoned by his creator. Aside from the principal storyline that is the desperate search for Mina, the eight-episode season also spends time unraveling his backstory, as well as those of the other characters, such as Vanessa's ongoing battle with her personal demons (both real and figurative) and Ethan's ill-fated romance with a Scottish prostitute suffering from consumption (Billie Piper).

Part supernatural thriller, part literary redux, it all comes together quite seamlessly — the gorgeous and moody visuals shot on-location in Ireland and England, the period costume design and the gory special effects — with the end result being one of the more compelling and unique series to debut in 2014, on a cable network or otherwise. And Logan isn't just the show's creator; he's poured his immense screenwriting talent (having worked on such films as Gladiator, Coriolanus and Skyfall) into penning each episode, making every one of the characters — whether they're a brand new creation or have been borrowed from other works — feel like an intrinsic part of the narrative.

As for the ensemble cast, which run the gamut of a former James Bond to a Doctor Who alumnus, each actor does a superlative job with the material. But it's really Green who steals the show, in this, her second, television outing (having previously taken on the role of the villainous Morgan in the BBC miniseries Camelot), bringing the same smouldering intensity to the small screen as she does to her movie roles. For even with vampires and demons lurking about, it's practically impossible to take your eyes off Vanessa, as Green anchors each episode with her impressively commanding screen presence.

Audio/Visual Fidelity Penny Dreadful: The Complete First Season debuts on Blu-ray with an impeccable A/V presentation, bringing the murky atmosphere of Victorian London to life with vivid detail. The crisp hi-def image reveals a wealth of visual information in the show's gothic production design (such as the grisly remains that litter the vampires' den or the many wires and contraptions that clutter Frankenstein's lab), with excellent contrast, strong black levels and colors that hold true to the series' somewhat monochromatic palette, which favors emphasizing the boldness in certain hues (such as the red found in splashes of blood or the orange that flickers in fiery flames). And it's complemented perfectly by the discs' Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack, which does an excellent job immersing viewers in the action, whether it be the ominous strings of series composer Abel Korzeniowski's score or the sound of gunfire, low-growling wolves and snarling, shrieking vampires.

Special Features Paramount's three-disc Blu-ray release includes 23 minutes of HD special features, in the form of nine video production blogs, all of which can be found on the third disc. Each blog runs from between 2 and 4 minutes in length, features a mix of behind-the-scenes footage, interviews and clips from the show, and originated on Showtime's Penny Dreadful YouTube channel.

Video Production Blog #1, What is a Penny Dreadful?, is a cursory overview of the series' pulp fiction inspirations; Literary Roots speaks to combining iconic characters from "Dracula", "Frankenstein" and "The Picture of Dorian Gray" into a single narrative; Coming Together takes a look at pre-production (stunt coordination, set design and location scouting); The Artisans: Part One — Set Decoration & Props focuses on the effort that went into (what else) set decoration and props; The Artisans: Part Two — Production Design reveals how Victorian London was recreated for the show; The Grand Guignol examines the theatre as a form of entertainment in the Victorian age (in particular, how the Grand Guignol Theatre, one of the show's primary locations, was constructed); Prostitution and Sex in the Victorian Age provides viewers with a tour of Victorian London's "sexual geography"; British Exploration and the Search for the Nile examines the lives of the famous British explorers after which the character of Sir Malcolm was modelled; and, last but not least, The Science of Medicine takes viewers to Bark's Pathology Museum in London, for a brief tour of some of the more fascinating items in their catalog.

The set also throws in two full episodes from season one of another Showtime series, Ray Donovan (which run for a total of 110 minutes). Furthermore, each episode of Penny Dreadful itself is compatible with the Showtime Sync app, which allows viewers to "make predictions, answer polls and trivia, get background information and more while you watch".


The Bottom Line With the current television landscape being what it is, it's always refreshing to see a network embrace quality genre programming like Penny Dreadful, which steeps itself in the mythology of its characters and delivers an experience that viewers can feel comfortable returning to each week, safe in the knowledge that each episode will draw them further into the show's unique world. Likewise, home theater enthusiasts should feel comfortable with Paramount's Blu-ray release, for even though it doesn't contain any show-specific bonus features that aren't already available online, it does feature an exceptionally high-quality A/V presentation. So whether you're revisiting the series or discovering it for the first time, don't be afraid: Penny Dreadful: The Complete First Season on Blu-ray is well worth it.  Ben Mk

Disc Breakdown
The Show  —  
Audio/Visual Fidelity  —  
Special Features  —  








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