“Penny Dreadful: City of Angels” is a Fresh, Vibrant Story to get Hooked on (Trailer)
The first thing people will talk about when it comes to?Penny Dreadful: City of Angels?is its title. The new Showtime drama isn’t a revival or a spin-off of?Penny Dreadful, and it isn’t exactly a new chapter in an?American Horror Story-type anthology, although if series creator?John Logan?wants to go in that direction, he’s got my blessing.?City of Angels, billed as a “spiritual descendent” of original-flavor?Penny Dreadful, is also created, written, and executive produced by Logan, and the two shows share a series regular in?Rory Kinnear. But beyond that, the new?Penny Dreadful?is?new?? a completely separate story set decades later and half a world away from the?gone-too-soon gothic horror. In this one, the characters see the sun.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels?kicks off with a gruesome murder in 1938 Los Angeles, where tensions are already rising as officials plan to gut a Mexican-American neighborhood to pave the way for the city’s first freeway. The murder of a wealthy white family could be the spark that lights the powder keg. The case is assigned to Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto), the first Chicano detective in the LAPD, and his partner, Lewis Michener (Lane), a veteran Jewish officer tracking covert Third Reich activity in L.A. on the side. They’re an interesting pair: two fundamentally good guys with symmetrical reasons to be cynical. Lane is nothing if not watchable; his snappy noir flair ? his inherent Nathan Lane-ness ? sells the show as a period piece without feeling gimmicky, and the actor is clearly relishing the chance to play with dramatic material. He’s well matched in Zovatto, who shades Tiago’s vulnerability with just enough darkness to keep him unpredictable.
At the heart of?City of Angels?is a family drama about Tiago’s complicated relationship with his own heritage, which his activist older brother, Raul (Adam Rodriguez), feels he’s betrayed by wearing a badge. “Are you a cop pretending to be Mexican,” one character asks Tiago, “or a Mexican pretending to be a cop?” Tiago is an outcast in true?Penny Dreadful?style, a man in limbo between two worlds. He’s running from a traumatic childhood encounter with Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo), the Angel of Holy Death, who’s worshiped by Tiago’s proud, unflinching mother, Maria (played to steely perfection by?Adriana Barraza). The show’s best horror chills come whenever Santa Muerte looms behind the characters, either unable or unwilling to show mercy. She’s a curiously numb character by design, but her scenes carry weight.
What gives?City of Angels?permission to sell itself as a?Penny Dreadful?story is the supernatural battle playing out in the margins. The drama’s main antagonist is Magda (Game of Thrones‘?Natalie Dormer), a ruthless, shape-shifting demon who takes on human guises in order to cause trouble. She says she’s out to prove to Santa Muerte, her sister, that human nature is inherently evil, but Magda also starts chaos just because she likes it. Dormer is a chameleon in the role, and it’s a blast to watch her rotate from charismatic to delicate to mousy to gangster-chic, manipulating everyone in her path.
City of Angels?makes the most of being set in 1938 Los Angeles, and its lush world-building is one of the show’s purest pleasures. Men in pinstripe suits drive through sunny canyons; beaches are packed with old-fashioned swimsuits; glitzy Beverly Hills mansions sit miles away from dusty barrios and cramped apartments. In the sets, locations, and costumes, the attention to historical detail is rich. My favorite scene of the show so far is a brilliant dance sequence in Episode 3 set in a club called the Crimson Cat, where sexuality is fluid and gender roles fall away. It’s very much a John Logan underground: a safe haven that’s only tragic because it has to stay hidden.