Penny Dreadful: Season One (CBS, Blu-ray, DVD) takes a premise similar to the graphic novel “The League of Extraordinary Gentleman”: the characters and supernatural beings of 19th century horror literature all exist in the real world.
Oscar-winning screenwriter John Logan created this series, which revolves around a trio of original characters who take on the supernatural underworld of London, and scripts all eight episodes of the debut season. Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) is searching for his daughter Mina, who has been taken by a vampire (as in the novel Dracula), with the help of Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a medium with a troubled past and a possible curse upon her. Josh Hartnett is the American Ethan Chandler, who comes to London as part of a Wild West show and hires himself out as a gunman to the team. Assisting the team is Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), whose first experiment (Rory Kinnear) has returned to demand a mate, and weaving through their stories is the decadent Dorian Gray, who woos Vanessa. One episode reworks The Exorcist and the season finale suggests that Bride of Frankenstein and Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde will be part of the story next season.
The title captures the tone of the series and horror director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) sets the ominous, shadowy mood as he helms the first two episodes. It features impressive production values, strong writing, excellent actors, and a Gothic atmosphere that favors mood over spectacle, and Logan intelligently and creatively weaves the classic stories into this original drama. Dr. Frankenstein after all abandoned his first born, essentially setting the moral yardstick for his offspring, and the show offers a compromised human Frankenstein and an angry, outraged creature with both the sensitivity and the emotional instability of a child that can rip the heart out of another person. And while the vampire of this tale is never referred to as Dracula, the show offers an interesting take on the story. But it’s the original characters that are the most compelling and the rocky relationship between bereft father Malcolm and tormented Vanessa, a kind of foster daughter in the shadow of his absent daughter, both needed and rejected by Malcolm. If blood defines family in the first episodes of the show, loyalty and sacrifice defines it by end of the season, and it is the American cowboy who brings that lesson home. I have a fondness for dramas built around makeshift families and offbeat teams who earn the loyalty of one another, and through the course of the season, Penny Dreadful turns into that kind of series.
It’s one Showtime’s most popular and most acclaimed shows to date, and outside of a Showtime subscription or a la carte digital purchases of individual episodes, disc is the only way to see the show. If you’re a horror fan, it’s definitely worth it. Eight episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with numerous featurettes and bonus episodes of other Showtime original shows.
Hemlock Grove: The Complete First Season (Scream Factory, Blu-ray, DVD), the Netflix original series executive produced by Eli Roth, is not as popular or acclaimed as its signature shows, but it’s their answer to the supernatural and horror TV genre. This one, based on the novel by Brian McGreevy, is more rural Gothic, a piece of genre storytelling in a small town where a girl has been brutally murdered and the search for a serial killer stirs up the secrets and strange goings-on. There are vicious killings that suggest something more feral and animalistic than a human killer, a rich family running the town (Famke Janssen and Dougray Scott are the estranged power couple), a shady gypsy family (with mom Lili Taylor playing it close to the vest) who become the number one suspects in the killings, and the usual high school cliques and collisions. The scions of the two families, scruffy bad boy Peter (Landron Liboiron) and arrogant rich kid Roman (Bill Skarsgard), team up to search for the killer.
Eli Roth directs the pilot, which is frankly something of a slog, and it takes a few episodes for the show find its atmosphere and pace, but the series is built around a mystery that carries the show through to its resolution, which of course sets up the story for the second season, currently available exclusively on Netflix, which has ordered one final season for the show to wrap up its storyline in its upcoming third and final season.
Robert Rodriguez reworks his 1996 south of the border vampire feature (which was scripted by Quentin Tarantino) as the keynote TV series of his cable TV channel, El Rey, in From Dusk Till Dawn: Season One (eOne, Blu-ray, DVD). The first season, in fact, essentially expands the film across eight episodes, reworking a few characters and the adding an elaborate backstory in the process. D.J. Cotrona and Zane Holtz play the notorious Gekko brothers, the roles originally created by George Clooney and Tarantino in the film, and the film opens with their blood-soaked criminal rampage through Texas on their way to Mexico as the younger, more violent brother is assaulted by visions of vampires and demons (a new element for the series). Robert Patrick takes the Harvey Keitel role as a widowed preacher who is taken captive, along with his two teenage children, by the Gekkos to drive over the border, and the season is half over before they reach the Mexican strip club, where a nest of Aztec vampires awaits them.
The series revels in the dusty desert setting, the outlaw culture of criminals and predators, and the gory spectacle of gunfights and vampire attacks, but the story take a long time to get anywhere. It’s pretty raunchy (it ends up in a strip club full of vampires, after all) and violence approaches R-rated levels, which makes this a TV version of a B-movie for an adult audience. In other words, for fans of Robert Rodriguez films like Machete and Sin City who want to see him work in a spaghetti western horror vein. El Rey is still not carried on many cable and satellite systems and many people don’t even know the network, but the series is also available to stream. 10 episodes on Blu-ray, DVD, and Netflix.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Season One (Universal, DVD) sets Saturday Night Live alumnus Andy Samberg and Homicide veteran Andre Braugher head to head as the goofball maverick and resident prankster of a New York detective squad bullpen and the squad’s new, no-nonsense Captain, determined to transform the class clown into a professional officer. They form the backbone of the series and their collision of personalities—the flamboyantly energetic class clowning of Samberg and the deadpan delivery and stone-faced reactions of Braugher, who parodies the seriousness of past roles—finds its balance through the course of the season.
It’s your basic workplace sitcom in a cop setting, something that hasn’t always worked well for sitcoms, at least not since Barney Miller, but this one dos thanks to an ensemble of colorful and eccentric characters: the physically intimidating Terry Crews as a meek family man trying to avoid dangerous assignments, Stephanie Beatriz as a hot-tempered Latina, Joe Lo Truglio as the well-meaning doofus with a crush on Beatriz, Chelsea Peretti as the smart-mouthed civilian PA, and Melissa Fumero as the squad’s other star detective, which leads to an often literal competition between the two between the (inevitable) romantic sparks. The show is uneven in early episodes but settles into its rhythm as the actors find their chemistry and the characters settle into their place in the comedy mix. And while the setting is a police station, it is really about office politics, character interactions, and individuals learning to work as a team, which should come as no surprise, as it was created by two producers of The Office and Parks and Recreation. It was one of the few sitcom hits from the 2013-2014 TV season and the second season is currently underway on Fox. 22 episodes on three discs, with deleted scenes.
Mom: The Complete First Season (Warner, DVD) stars Anna Faris, one of the funniest and most talented comic actresses of her generation, and superb, Emmy-winning Allison Janney as two generations of single mothers living in the same household after they reunite at an AA meeting. That’s right, Janney plays Faris’ alcoholic mom, estranged until they meet in the same support group, because Faris is trying to get sober as well to do right by her two kids. And her high school daughter (Sadie Calvano) looks like she’s about to keep the cycle going when she finds out she’s pregnant by her sweet but stupid stoner boyfriend.
It’s from Chuck Lorre, creator of Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, and like those shows, it revolves around dysfunctional characters, but Mom uses humor to explore more serious problems. Over the course of the season, Faris has to come to terms with her resentment over her mother’s failures while struggling with her own sobriety and guilt while Janney gets the more caustic role, slow to take responsibility, and over the course of the season both women deal with the complicated emotions of reconnecting with Faris’ absent father. It’s set in the world of working class jobs, unemployment, and deadbeat dads but while the humor is based on failure and humiliation, the show is about slow steps to self-improvement and family support. Which is not to say that the show is edgy in any way—it hews to the Chuck Lorre style of insult humor and raunchy one-liners with a heartwarming ending—but it takes on situations that other sitcoms don’t and it features two of the funniest women on TV in leading roles. 22 episodes on DVD.
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD) is the latest non-fiction magnum opus from Ken Burns. By which I mean he devoted an epic length—14 hours in all—to this project, the same kind of scope he saves for major project: The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, The War. That’s because this isn’t just biography. He uses the lives and accomplishments of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt to explore the political and social history of America from the turn of the century to World War II, and he focuses on the evolution these privileged people underwent to become champions of working folks over the moneyed interests of their class. Paul Giamatti voices Theodore Roosevelt, Edward Herrmann is Franklin (the same role he played decades ago on TV), Meryl Streep reads for Eleanor, and Peter Coyote narrates. Blu-ray and DVD with the featurette “Making of The Roosevelts,” 13 bonus videos, and deleted scenes with an introduction by Burns.
Zane Grey Theatre: The Complete Second Season (Timeless, DVD) appears not to actually be complete. The season ran 29 episodes on TV but this set features only 27 and one of the episodes it omits is arguably its most famous: “The Sharpshooter,” the pilot that spawned The Rifleman, written and directed by Sam Peckinpah. The 27 episodes it does feature may still be worth it to the fans but Peckinpah completists should be warned.
South Park: The Complete 17th Season (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD) runs only 10 episodes but this season of the cult animated comedy from Trey Parker and Matt Stone features one of their great multi-episode epic satires, which weaves Black Friday shopping, the war between PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and the HBO series “Game of Thrones” into an epic spoof that ends on wicked parody of the infamous “Red Wedding” episode, complete with betrayals, zombie shoppers, and a literal war zone in the shopping mall. 10 episodes on DVD and Blu-ray editions, with creator mini-commentaries and crowd-sourced #socialcommentary from Twitter (via subtitles) on all episodes.
The British crime series Peaky Blinders (Netflix), created by Steven Knight (the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Dirty Pretty Things and writer and director of the superb Locke) and set in the industrial city of Birmingham after World War I, stars Cillian Murphy as a gang boss and Sam Neill as the new chief inspector determined to shut him down. The British series debuts stateside as a Netflix exclusive and is the first season is available to stream in its entirely.
Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Granada Television Series (MPI, Blu-ray) presents the Blu-ray debut of the British “Sherlock Holmes” series of the 1980s and early 1990s starring Jeremy Brett, who many fans consider the definitive incarnation of Sherlock Holmes on the screen, and Edward Hardwicke as Dr. Watson. 12 discs, but MPI is also releasing the individual series separately in smaller packages: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (MPI, Blu-ray), The Return of Sherlock Holmes (MPI, Blu-ray), The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (MPI, Blu-ray), The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (MPI, Blu-ray), and The Sherlock Holmes Feature Film Collection (MPI, Blu-ray).
Spartacus: The Complete Series (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) collects the what has become, for better or worse, the signature original series of Starz. Ostensibly a sword, sex and sandal update of the Stanley Kubrick gladiator classic, this hopelessly trashy, heavily CGI-enhanced pay-cable series looks like 300 by way of Gladiator, with all the nudity and soft-focus simulated sex of a Cinemax late-night original. The show actually improved over the course of series, but the selling point was always the sex and blood and stylized action. 29 episodes of the show’s four seasons, plus commentary tracks, featurettes, and other supplements. The Blu-ray edition features extended episodes and an UltraViolet HD copy of the entire series.
State Trooper: The Complete Series (Timeless Media, DVD) stars Rod Cameron as Officer Rod Blake of the Nevada State Police in this 1950s TV series. Robert Armstrong and Don Haggerty co-star as Nevada sheriffs in stories based on actual cases from police files. 104 episodes from the show’s three-season run, plus four bonus episodes of western shows starring Cameron. 10 discs.
Reign: The Complete First Season (Warner, DVD)
The 100: The Complete First Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD)
Sleepy Hollow: The Complete First Season (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Almighty Johnsons: Season 1- Unedited (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD)
About a Boy: Season One (Warner, DVD, Netflix)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Complete First Season (Paramount, DVD)
DC Supervillains Justice League: Season One (Warner, DVD)
Rick and Morty: Season One (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD)
Houdini: Extended Edition (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD)
American Horror Story: Coven (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD)
Arrow: The Complete Second Season (Warner, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) (reviewed here)
Castle: The Complete Sixth Season (ABC, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Mentalist: The Complete Sixth Season (Warner, DVD)
Hannibal: Season Two (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD)
Grimm: Season Three (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD)
Bones: The Complete Ninth Season (Fox, DVD, Netflix)
The Following: The Complete Second Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD)
Scandal: The Complete Third Season (ABC, Blu-ray, DVD, Netflix)
Modern Family: The Complete Fifth Season (Fox, DVD)
Nashville: The Complete Second Season (ABC, Blu-ray, DVD)
Vikings: The Complete Second Season (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD)
Bates Motel: Season Two (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Big Bang Theory: The Complete Seventh Season (Warner, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
Mike and Molly: The Complete Fourth Season (Warner, DVD)
NYPD Blue: Season 7 (Shout Factory, DVD)
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: The Fifteenth Year (Universal, DVD)
Defiance: Season Two (Universal, DVD)
Royal Pains: Season Five (Universal, DVD)
Necessary Roughness: Season Three (Universal, DVD)
L.A. Law: Season Three (Shout Factory, DVD)
Daniel Boone: The Complete Series (Fox, DVD)
Key & Peele: Season Three (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD)
Awkward: Season Three (Paramount, DVD)
Beware the Batman: Dark Justice – Season 1, Part 2 (Warner, Blu-ray)
Afterlife: Season Two (BBC, DVD)
In the Flesh: The Complete Season Two (BBC, DVD)
Prisoners of War: Season Two (Shout Factory, DVD)
Father Brown: Season One (BBC, DVD)
Petals on the Wind (Lionsgate, DVD)
DCI Banks: Season Two (Acorn, DVD)
Death in Paradise: Season Two (Acorn, DVD)
Scot & Bailey: Season Two (Acorn, DVD)
The Great Train Robbery (Acorn, DVD)
Still Life: A Three Pines Mystery (Acorn, DVD)
Republic of Doyle: Season 2 (Acorn, DVD)
Adventure Time: The Complete Fourth Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (Timeless, DVD)
Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever (StarVista/Time Life, DVD)
Time Team America: Seasons 1 and 2 (PBS, DVD)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Series 6 (Acorn, DVD)
Rake: Season 3 (BFS, DVD)
The Mystery of Agatha Christie with David Suchet (PBS, DVD)
Field of Blood: Set 1 (Acorn, DVD)
Martin Clune’s Wildlife (Acorn, DVD)
Johan Falk: Season One (MHz, DVD)
In the Face of Crime (MHz, DVD)
Don Matteo: Set 7 (MHz, DVD)
Don Matteo: Set 8 (MHz, DVD)
Duck Dynasty: Season 6 (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD)
Ancient Aliens: Season 6, Volume 1 (History, Blu-ray, DVD)
Frontline: Losing Iraq (PBS, DVD)
Mr. Civil Rights: Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP (PBS, DVD)
Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace (PBS, DVD)
The Best of the Danny Kaye Show (MVD, DVD)
The Fidel Castro Tapes (PBS, DVD)
Al Capone: Icon (PBS, DVD)
Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story (PBS, DVD)
American Experience: The Big Burn (PBS, DVD)
Nova: Vaccines – Calling the Shots (PBS, DVD)
The Mind of a Chef: Edward Lee (PBS, DVD)
Walter’s War (PBS, DVD)
Secrets of Her Majesty’s Secret Service (PBS, DVD)
James McNeill Whistler and the Case of Beauty (PBS, DVD)
Royal Paintbox (PBS, DVD)
My Little Pony: The Complete Series (Shout Factory, DVD)
Denver the Last Dinosaur: Complete Series (Cinedigm, DVD)
Slugterra: Return of the Elementals (Shout Factory Kids)