This Penny Dreadful review contains no spoilers.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels takes place half a century after the original series. Penny Dreadful was set in London during the age of gothic romance, the late 1800s. Capes were the height of fashion. The new series takes place in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Los Angeles in 1938. Zoot suits are the swingingest threads. The original featured an immortal art lover, Frankenstein’s creature and a werewolf. Now we have city planners, plainclothes detectives and smiling fascists. Penny Dreadful was steeped in a theosophical mysticism. Penny Dreadful: City of Angels prays to Santa Muerte, but is preyed upon by her sister.
Natalie Dormer, who lost her head as Anne Boleyn on the Showtime series The Tudors and married up, and down, on HBO’s Game of Thrones, plays Magda, the series’ everywoman. As the supernatural shape-shifting agent of chaos, she not only can be any character, but characters come out of her, fully formed. Every time a new female character is introduced, we check to see if it’s Dormer in a different hairstyle. She walks the walk. Windows blow out behind her as she saunters across the streets of Los Angeles. She also cuts quite the rug in an after-hours dance scene which doubles as a revolutionary recruitment.
Magda personifies evil, and is a master of temptation, whispering illicit truths in men’s ears they cannot resist. Magda us out to prove to her sister Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo), the Angel of Holy Death, that human nature is inherently evil. Santa Muerte is an interesting character. She says she has no tears, but she is certainly a lady of many sorrows. She’s not too fond of the pop-in, though, like when she’s conjured by Detective Tiago Vega’s (Daniel Zovatto) mother Maria (Adriana Barraza). She brings the horror home.
Tiago is the Johnny Angel-from-Angel Heart character in the show. He was touched by an angel when he was a kid and is investigating a cultic sacrifice in his first assignment at the homicide squad. He’d be ripe for the allure of radio evangelism if not for his partner Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane), a veteran cop who hunts Nazis in his spare time. The Third Reich is just waiting for their boots to arrive in L.A. so they can stomp they’re way through on a new highway. Lane is a dramatic Lou Costello to Zovatto’s Bud Abbott. Vega has to play the straight man because he is the new kid on the block and still on the fence in the hood. While Lane, in a very underplayed performance, steals the entire series without missing his beat. The Jewish cop and the first Chicano detective in the LAPD ground the series in urban reality as the front line against the unreal.
Kerry Bishé plays Sister Molly, a popular and charismatic Christian evangelist who dreams of the normal life. Sister Molly is a stand-in for Aimee Semple McPherson and her Foursquare Church. McPherson was the first televangelist, except she broadcast her weekly sermons at the first megachurch the Angelus Temple over the radio. Raised on the tent revival circuit, she didn’t sing, but could speak in tongues. She turned the gospel of hellfire and damnation into one of love. According to Amy Peed McCullough’s book Her Preaching Body: Conversations about Identity, Agency, and Embodiment, McPherson tackled “explicit biblical passages” and “portrayed herself as the bride of Christ … Her critics labeled the preaching magnetism a hypnotic sexually charged allure.”Barbara Stanwyck starred as a character based on her in Frank Capra’s film The Miracle Woman (1931).
In a mid-season episode, Molly tells her mother not to worry when she decides to drive herself to an appointment. She assures her she is not going to get kidnapped. But in real life, Aimee did disappear, and no one knows whether she was kidnapped, ran away or faked the whole thing. Molly complains about the isolation which comes from adoration. “Someone so jaunty has no place in my house,” she tells Tiago after he wins her a Popeye toy at an amusement park shooting gallery booth.
Rory Kinnear, who played Dr. Frankenstein’s creation in the original series, plays a doctor here. He is also the happy face of the Third Reich on the West Coach. He parades in a Nazi uniform in the park, cajoling Americans to think of their country first, and the old world of Europe not at all. Who wants to fight? He’d rather watch his sons make sand parapets on the beach. The unhappiest face of the Third Reich is city councilman Charlton Townsend (Michael Gladis) who does pretty much what he’s told, wherever he happens to be kneeling. Once again, Natalie Dormer’s Magda has his ear as his seemingly mousy, bespectacled, personal assistant.
The special effects are adequately gruesome, but also quite realistic-looking. Tiago’s activist older brother Raul (Adam Rodriguez) gets injured and a sequence includes a blood-and-bone compacted eye. It is a minor effect, compared with some of the gorier scenes, but the details make you want to look away. Bruises, like the ones found on a battered wife, are treated with as much care as the otherworldly effects. This was also true of the original series.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels tells a cohesive, well-plotted and multilayered story. It projects the dreamlike sleep paralysis on a real screen. The series is a spiritual descendant, not a revival or a spin-off of Penny Dreadful. Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives teamed with a monster hunting explorer and a gunslinging wolfman over absinthe. Detectives Vega and Michener pry demons out of a case suitable to frame on Día de Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead, over gimlets, the nectar of the gods. They also play traffic cops as the freeway leads straight to social engineering. Series creator John Logan mirrors the pre-war west coast with contemporary evils. Demagoguery, technology, racism, the wealth gap, and bad cops and worse politicians are the black magic. Darkness wears old-fashioned bathing suits on brightly lit Guys and Dolls sets with West Side Story rhythms. The real magic happens at the probably anachronistic Crimson Cat, an underground safe haven for dancing revolutionaries.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels keeps the macabre at bay for the majority of its unfolding. The horror is muted and honestly appears to be an unwelcome intrusion on what is presented as a well-thought out period crime procedural with noir overtones. The supernatural influence is as undeniable as Magda’s whisperings and almost as imperceptible, but the suspense lies in the crime and not the mysticism. This may be something the series is saving to the end, but the demonic terror is not a steadily encroaching presence. It is a stalker who leaps out of the shadows unexpectedly and much too rarely.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels premieres April 26 at 10 pm on Showtime.