Penny Dreadful: Season One: A Fascinating Premise Gets Distracted (Blu-ray)


The Show:

John Logan, the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter behind such films as “Gladiator,” “The Aviator,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “”The Last Samurai,” delves into the realm of gothic horror for the small screen with “Penny Dreadful,” a show that takes some of the most famous literary characters of all time and thrusts them together for a dark tale that has them facing off against the forces of evil. Taking place in Victorian London in 1891, Explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) brings together an eclectic group that includes Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a medium with a special connection to the dark side, Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), a young man with brilliant medical skills, and Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), an American gunslinger running away from his past.

Their purpose is to locate Sir Malcolm’s daughter, Mina (Olivia Llewellyn), who was taken by vampires many years ago. Along the way, some are forced to confront demons of the past, such as Victor and his infamous creature (Rory Kinnear) who now demands a mate, while others become entangled in love affairs, like Vanessa and the young, dashing Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), or Ethan and his sickly sweetheart Brona Croft (Billie Piper). All the while, the mission remains their top priority, and while tracking down the evil is no easy task, Sir Malcolm refuses to give up until he is able to bring his daughter home safe, or, if necessary, put her to rest.

When reading such a synopsis, one can’t help but think of all of the incredible possibilities that such a series could hold. There are numerous fascinating ways in which these unforgettable literary characters could interact, a multitude of gripping stories that could be told. However, such potential only makes it all the more disappointing in how the show actually turned out. We begin with an intriguing premise (grouping these characters together and having them fight supernatural forces), but sadly the incredibly talented John Logan seems at a complete loss as to what to do with it. This becomes very clear from the first episode where, instead of focusing on the plot as he should be, the show quickly begins to meander into several unnecessary subplots that don’t have much to do with anything, including having Victor create another monster.

As the show goes on, this problem only becomes worse, pointlessly adding in the characters of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s eternally beautiful youth, and Brona Croft, a TB-stricken love interest for Ethan. There are moments when it does focus on the plot of getting Mina back, but it seems as though Logan only wants to spend the minimum amount of time possible per episode doing so, favoring the aimless subplots instead. This gives the show the feeling of being distracted most of the time, so instead of a fascinating and gripping storyline, what we get is more so dull and unengaging. It’s a beautiful show with some pretty good performances, but unfortunately the potential it had is squandered away because of its distracted nature, leaving the viewer merely to think what might have been had it been done correctly.

Video/Audio:

“Penny Dreadful: Season One” comes to Blu-ray in a 1.78:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of excellent quality. This is a very dark show for the most part, but the picture remains perfectly clear and sharp throughout the presentation, allowing for the amazing production design to stand out. The 5.1 TrueHD audio is a little soft at times, but all elements are always audible, making for a great soundtrack. Overall, the show has been given fantastic treatment that highlights some of its strongest elements (art direction, sets, and the score).

Special Features:

  • What is a Penny Dreadful?

  • Literary Roots

  • Coming Together

  • The Artisans, Part 1

  • The Artisans, Part 2

  • The Grand Guignol

  • Sex and Prostitution in the Victorian Age

  • British Exploration & the Search for the Nile

  • The Science of Medicine

On first glance, this may seem like a lot of extras, but unfortunately they’re very deceptive. These nine featurettes are merely extremely brief (2-3 minutes apiece) production videos that are very superficial, some of which don’t even have anything to do with the making of the show. They do contain some interesting behind the scenes footage, but you’re not likely to learn very much from them given their brevity. A better job certainly could have been done here.

Conclusion:

“Penny Dreadful” was an intriguing idea with quite a bit of potential, but unfortunately the execution of that idea is extremely flawed, resulting in a story that is buried and distracted by a myriad of pointless subplots. There’s no doubt that the show is beautiful and that the performers are up to the task of taking on these dark characters, but the lack of focus makes for a rather dull experience as the show meanders on and on. There’s a great story to be told through the merger of these great literary icons. Sadly this is not it.

Score: 2.5/5

Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.

Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.