1938, Los Angeles. A period of time often considered the Golden Era of Hollywood. While the glitz and glamour served as an escapist distraction for many U.S. Citizens during this time period, much ugliness existed all around. Racial and ethnic clashes persisted. Growing support – both openly and behind closed doors – existed for Hitler and the Nazi movement. And the rise of radio evangelism could not be denied. With so many changes and movements happening all around and with so much mirroring what’s happened in recent American history in the past few years, it is no wonder that showrunner John Logan’s latest series, PENNY DREADFUL: CITY OF ANGELS, strikes an uncomfortably familiar cord. But, for fans of the original series and those new to the world Logan is creating, many want to know if it is worth the watch. After watching the first six episodes of the series, I cautiously say that it is, while fully acknowledging that there are a couple of issues – both rational and irrational – that might deter people from viewing.
Right off the bat, it becomes clear who the main star of the show is. Natalie Dormer, who takes on four entirely different roles throughout the course of the series, makes a meal out of the material she’s given. Much like Eva Green’s Vanessa, she commands a scene with aplomb. Whether it’s as her true demon visage Magda, the fiery bisexual dago Rio, the mousy, yet formidable secretary Alex, or the abused, German wife Elsa, she makes every character her own. While a massive spoiler tidbit was mentioned early on in the series about the possible plans Magda has in store, it doesn’t become entirely clear where that end goal will reach its peak. Instead, we watch Magda turn the hearts of those around her to fulfill her chaotic aims, whilst her sister Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo) watches silently as the bodies start piling up.
Dormer is not the only one who shines. Standout performances from both veteran Nathan Lane, Adriana Barraza, and returning Penny Dreadful favorite, Rory Kinnear, help keep the series rooted, especially as the storylines diverge and split off to places with seemingly no end-point. Nathan Lane’s cynical detective, Lewis Michener, is given depth by the actor. What could have easily been a one-note character develops and unravels into something more as we learn more of the Jewish detective’s history and his subplot to keep Nazis out of Los Angeles (which I discovered via Google was actually a real historical issue in Los Angeles.) Adriana Barraza’s Maria Vega is heartfelt and grounded, even when her own children look at her sideways with her religious devotion to Santa Muerte. As a single mother raising the Vegas, you can’t help but feel for her as all she wants to do is keep the family together and whole in the midst of all of the changes going on around them. And Rory Kinnear’s Dr. Peter Craft will illicit complicated emotions among fans of the original series. While the doctor is protective of the abused Elsa (played by Natalie Dormer) and her son, he is also – quite frankly – a Nazi and, as seen later on in the series, someone with possessive and insecurity issues. While he injects an empathy in the character that really only Kinnear can do, it leaves a weird feeling in the pit of the stomach.
I would be remiss though if I didn’t mention the rest of the cast as everyone for the most part delivers. Michael Gladis shines as the loud, overbearing City Councilman Charlton Townsend who will do practically anything to get the Arroyo Seco Parkway built. Jessica Garza’s Josefina Vega doesn’t get much screentime but, when her character experiences racially motivated cruelty from the LAPD, her embrace of the evangelical-side feels natural and understandable. While her storyline seems considerably unnecessary compared to the rest of the storylines jampacked into the series, Kerry Bishé’s Sister Molly is convincingly accurate, especially when contrasted against Amy Madigan’s steely performance as her narcissistic, manipulative mother. The one actor I feel we all should keep an eye on in the future is Johnathan Nieves, who delivers an outstanding performance as Mateo Vega, the younger brother of Daniel Zovatto’s Detective Tiago Vega, who is bristling under the lack of opportunities and racial targeting of Chicanos. Zovatto’s performance as Tiago is considerably mixed depending on the storyline he gets thrust into. When thrown together with Sister Molly, it feels like a waste of an opportunity to relegate him into a romance leading man position. Where he shines is when Tiago gets thrust back into the real world, with crimes, murder, and complicated family dynamics.
While the tone of the PENNY DREADFUL: CITY OF ANGELS is less macabre and gothically dark as its predecessor, it is clear that the series itself is leaning into the proto-noir direction. If one really wanted to debate, one could argue that film noir was really the ’40s version of a penny dreadful, with its emphasis on murder, mystery, and over-dramatics. The show has all of this in spades as we are taken all across the Los Angeles County area to hash out a variety of different plots. However, at times, it does feel like the series is taking on way too much in terms of story-related-matter. While the original Penny Dreadful series too had many plots, the characters were so tightly knit together that it didn’t feel as broad and as lost as it does in this current series. While I only did get to see the first six episodes of the series, I am left to wonder how everything will tie together in some capacity for the finale and what the end-goal might be. Especially since each season of the original series had the same issue, but we all knew where things were leading up to until the last episode.
When Penny Dreadful, the original Showtime series, came out in 2014, it completely captured the hearts and imaginations of many, including myself. A dedicated fanbase developed, especially after the heartbreaking Season 3 finale of the series, which would both shock and disappoint longtime fans of Vanessa Ives. So, when it was revealed that there would be a loose spinoff series titled PENNY DREADFUL: CITY OF ANGELS, the comparison between the two series was bound to happen. So many people adored the original series that it became clear from this fan’s perspective that many people would refuse to watch this new series. I am here to tell those particular vocal types of fans that you should watch PENNY DREADFUL: CITY OF ANGELS. The reason being that it is a penny dreadful in its own right just as much as the original series was. You have elements of mystery, the supernatural, and such all woven in together. While it does not have the marked Victorian, gothic-vibe of its predecessor, there is enough homage paid within the first couple of episodes to tie the two together while also acknowledging this is more of a film noir-esque take on what a penny dreadful could be.
Overall, there is enough within the series to make any viewer curious to see what will happen next. This is not the Penny Dreadful series many of us remember from a few years ago. PENNY DREADFUL: CITY OF ANGELS is a step toward the Penny Dreadfuls of the ’40s and ’50s, which I’d argue is film noir. I do want to make a note about the politics of the show. While many might argue that this particular iteration is too political, I hate to tell you this but American history and daily life have generally always been interwoven with politics. And picking this particular time period of Angeleno history, there is too much change going on for anyone to really avoid not discussing the political issues of the era. While there is an awful lot that John Logan crams into the first six episodes, there is so much that works that will keep viewers hanging on, especially with the dynamic performances delivered by the cast.
PENNY DREADFUL: CITY OF ANGELS will premiere on Showtime on Sunday, April 26, 2020, at 10 PM EST/9 PM CST. The full premiere episode is available now online, which you can check out below.