‘Penny Dreadful: City of Angels’ Review: A Powerful Ensemble Buckles Under a Packed Narrative

Showtime's spinoff of John Logan's cult favorite moves to Los Angeles for a series that's frustratingly basic in its presentation.
Natalie Dormer in "Penny Dreadful: City of Angels" Showtime
Natalie Dormer in "Penny Dreadful: City of Angels"

The term “penny dreadfuls” was initially attributed to cheap serial literature that was instantly popular with the masses in the United Kingdom. Creator John Logan’s 2014 series, “Penny Dreadful” took the term and utilized it to create new origin stories for some of the most popular figures in Gothic literature. The show developed a cult following that remains to this day, taking an ironic twist and turning into the penny dreadfuls that inspired it.

Logan’s new spinoff uproots its Victorian London setting for 1938 Los Angeles to tell a story about murder, Chicano history, and the building of L.A.’s first major motorway, and while it’s unclear who exactly the series is meant to appeal to, the sheer power of its cast keeps things moving.

The “Penny Dreadful”-ness of the story that could conceivably connect this to the previous incarnation is seen in the pilot’s opening, wherein Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo) is challenged by Magda (Natalie Dormer) for the souls of all humanity. Is Magda the Devil a minion? It’s unclear, at least in the six episodes given to press. We see her inhabit the guise of several different women at the center of the series’ numerous plot threads, with her endgame unknown, short of sowing dissension.

Dormer, to her credit, makes each character she plays feel fully formed and vibrant. Her most murderous and manipulative character is that of Alex, the Girl Friday to self-conscious Los Angeles Councilman, Charlton Townsend who is overseeing the obliteration of the Chicano neighborhood Belvedere Heights to create the Arroyo-Seco highway. With her perpetually puckered lips and homely appearance, Dormer is the devil literally whispering in Townsend’s ear. Conversely, she’s more playful as the seemingly sweet German woman, Elsa, luring in doctor Peter Craft (Rory Kinnear).

With both Elsa and Alex, the character tropes are familiar, bordering on overused — the smarter second-in-command, the “Hand That Rocks the Cradle”-esque other woman — but in Dormer’s hands they take on a grander purpose. The actress has always been able to wear many masks in her characterizations, and this is the ultimate test — but it’s hard to see her as an Italian outcast leading a Pachuco gang of kids. The embodiment veers into cultural appropriation before skewing toward the “all outcasts face the same oppression” mentality the series wants to focus on.

But while the many forms of Dormer are the dominant force within “City of Angels,” pulling the strings that will lead…somewhere, there are numerous other stories fighting for space. After the introduction of Magda and Santa Muerte, the audience drops into the murder of the Hazletts, a prominent Beverly Hills family whose gruesome deaths imply Mexican influence and black magic. Leading the investigation are LAPD detectives Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane) and the force’s first Chicano detective, Santiago “Tiago” Vega (Daniel Zovatto).

"Penny Dreadful: City of Angels"
Penny Dreadful: City of AngelsJustin Lubin/SHOWTIME

Tiago’s plotline, as well as the Hazlett murders, do a solid job of discussing the racism, both casual and overt, Chicanos in Los Angeles experienced. As the LAPD’s first detective of color, Tiago is torn between being “a Mexican pretending to be a cop or a cop pretending to be Mexican,” especially as his family goes down different paths, either reacting against the gentrification of their city or falling back deeper into their religion. Tiago’s brothers, Mateo and Raul (Johnathan Nieves and Adam Rodriguez, respectively), are responding with violence as Tiago attempts to placate both the racist cops and his own family. Tiago’s dynamic with his partner touches on the looser privilege of whiteness, with Lewis defending his partner in times of trouble but still able to drop ethnic slurs or make assumptions.

It’s unfortunate that the narrative separates them for nearly half the episodes, with Lewis investigating Nazis in Los Angeles and Tiago falling for radio evangelist Sister Molly (Kerry Bishé). Zovatto’s performance as Tiago is good despite the emphasis of putting him in the stock romantic figure role. He comes alive more when fighting with his family over their response to the cops. His relationship with Bishé’s Sister Molly sets up a “West Side Story” style romance without directly calling it out. Bishé, to her credit, is highly interesting as Sister Molly, a character heavily inspired by Aimee Semple McPherson and Jean Simmons’ Sister Sharon from “Elmer Gantry” — with a dash of Britney Spears’ constrained pop star. When Bishé is having a big monologue opposite her mother, played by Amy Madigan, the actress wraps her tongue around the script’s words in a way that makes them poetic. But, like so much of this series, it’s unclear where she really fits in the grand scheme of things outside of one connection to the murder.

Nathan Lane is the one who ends up overshadowing everyone. His side detour into the V2 rocket and team-up with Lin Shaye’s Dottie Minter doesn’t make any sense within the first six episodes so it’s safe to assume it’ll somehow end up tying together with Townsend, who has his own Nazi connections. Right now, though, it just feels uninteresting and half-formed. The narrative is meant to place the Chicano experience alongside that of the Jews, and their growing awareness of what is happening in Germany, but it’s a straw argument on the screen. That being said, Lane is killing it as a man facing conflict from all angles and having his soul eaten away as his friends die and those he trusts end up distrusting him.

With such an emphasis on Nazi infiltration in Los Angeles the weakest plotline is one involving an actual Nazi. Rory Kinnear’s Peter Craft shows man’s two faces; one, a family man who plays board games with the kids, and the other a man open to promoting Nazism in front of City Hall. Kinnear is unimpeachable as Craft but his narrative with Elsa has been done in so many series involving infidelity. And that’s the hardest element of “City of Angels”: Nearly every plotline, from the 1930s setting to Nazis hiding in plain sight, has been done before and better. At times, the series feels like a retread of “L.A. Confidential” with its one unique element, that of Tiago’s quest for respect in the LAPD, being smothered by several other ideas. Had the series pared down its plotlines the characters could shine more, their motivations crystallize, instead of feeling like they’re 20 characters in search of an exit.

Grade: C

“Penny Dreadful: City of Angles” premieres Sunday, April 26 at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.

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