Pop Culturing: 'Penny Dreadful: City of Angels' is a Frustrating Spiritual Sequel

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Friday April 24, 2020

Daniel Zovatto, left, with Nathan Lane, right, in a scene from "Penny Dreadful: City of Angels."
Daniel Zovatto, left, with Nathan Lane, right, in a scene from "Penny Dreadful: City of Angels."  (Source:Justin Lubin/Showtime)

"Penny Dreadful," which ran on Showtime for three seasons between 2014 and 2016, never really got the praise it deserves. Created by out scribe John Logan, the dark series was inspired by penny dreadfuls; genre stories from the 19th century (perhaps similar to today's Marvel comics) where Logan used iconic figures like Dracula, Dorian Gray, Abraham Van Helsing, Victor Frankenstein and his monster, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and many others to write his own elevated fanfiction with the addition of new characters that he created. The drama was mostly a showcase for Eva Green (an actor who also never really got the praise she deserves), who played the mysterious and powerful Vanessa Ives and was placed directly at the center of the sprawling story.

The show will likely be remembered for the way it ended. Without an announcement or any marketing fanfare, the last episode of Season 3 turned out to be a series finale, with "Penny Dreadful" coming to a shocking conclusion. Now, nearly four years since the drama wrapped up, Logan is back with a new story under the "Penny Dreadful" banner. "City of Angels," which hits Showtime on April 26, is a spiritual sequel of sorts that finds Logan trading his obsession with Victoria Gothic fiction for a hardboiled noir story that's fused with Mexican folklore and set in 1938 Los Angeles.

Natalie Dormer in a scene from "Penny Dreadful: City of Angels." Photo credit: Justin Lubin/Showtime

"City of Angels" also features a new cast (except for the excellent British actor Rory Kinnear, who played Dr. Frankenstein's Creature in "Penny Dreadful"), which includes "Game of Thrones" star Natalie Dormer, "It Follows" actor Daniel Zovatto, and Nathan Lane. Logan, who is credited as creating the new series, returns as writer, penning the first four episodes of six that Showtime provided. This time around, Logan seems to be writing with more purpose and intentionality; "City of Angels" feels more urgent and Logan (who has writing credits on films like "Hugo," "Alien: Covenant," "The Aviator," and "The Time Machine") has a lot on his mind. It's perhaps his most directly political work to date where he draws parallels to the darkness of 2020 (sans the coronavirus pandemic) and attempts to place that anxiety in West Coast America with World War II on the horizon.

Those coming into "City of Angels" hoping it strikes the same kind of tone and kinetic energy of its predecessor might be disappointed. The new show is light on hauntings and ghouls as Logan double downs on existential threats and the curdling America's perception as a land of peace and opportunity for all. The show follows Tiago Vega (Zovatto), the Los Angeles Police Department's first Mexican-American detective, as he and his veteran partner Lewis Michener (an excellent turn for Lane) work on a gruesome murder case involving the deaths four white people. The scene of the crime indicates the slayings were carried out by Mexicans as the bodies are dressed up in Día de Muertos (Day of the Day) garb and makeup, only escalating the ongoing racial tension between white people in and the Mexican-American community in L.A. at the time.

At the core of the show is the shape-shifting evil entity Magda (Dormer), who takes on several forms in order to influence humans so they can carry out her evil acts. Magda fits herself in of the show's many plot threads, allowing Dormer to take on a number of different identities (four in total!). It's clear Logan has positioned the Magda character as his new Eva Green as it allows Dormer to display her acting chops. It doesn't always work, but there are times when Dormer proves herself to be a big force as she transforms herself into women from different walks of life. In one storyline, she plays a mousey but sinister secretary to Charlton Townsend (Michael Gladis), a councilman and the head of the L.A. City Council's Transportation Committee, who is gearing up to construct a highway that would run through, and effectively destroy, a Mexican-American neighborhood. (It's with the Charlton character that Logan lays it on thick with the links to 2020 and basically uses him as a Trumpian figure; in one episode he spews "make America great again"-type rhetoric.)

Elsewhere, Dormer plays a kind German housewife and mother who says she's being abused by her husband to gain the sympathy of Peter Craft (Kinnear), a German pediatrician who happens to be the leader of the German-American Bund. Here too, Logan connects the white supremacism of yesteryear to the burgeoning incidents we see pop up in our headlines today. She also slithers her way into the lives of folks in L.A.'s Mexican-American neighborhood. Here, she becomes a young queer person who attempts to ignite the rising tension and rage towards white and straight people oppressing them.

Daniel Zovatto, left, with Nathan Lane, right, in a scene from "Penny Dreadful: City of Angels." Photo credit: Justin Lubin/Showtime

And that's just about half of the plot in "City of Angels." Storylines eventually intertwine but it takes a long time to get there. Like "Penny Dreadful," this spinoff does feature a lot of queerness, though, again, it takes a few long episodes for that to happen. Logan's writing is upfront and center in "City of Angels" as he pens extremely long monologues for his actors. Each episode features moody and passionate speeches from characters that go on for several minutes. They're clearly having fun delivering Logan's writing, but it can be daunting and even exhausting to watch. But once the show gets where it's going, "City of Angels" becomes truly exciting. Episode four, "Josefina and the Holy Spirit," features one of the most hard-to-watch incidents I've seen on TV in some time and that is followed by one of the most violent acts of murder I've seen on TV in years.

For all of its big-budget showiness, "City of Angels" oftentimes feels like a small, albeit complicated, stage play. For better or for worse, the new drama wears its themes on its sleeve, and actors revel in Logan's writing. Still, there's something missing. "City of Angels" is the latest show to be set in or around World War II. Based on the Philip Roth novel, HBO's miniseries "The Plot Against America" also reimagines American history and posits the idea of what would happen if noted fascist Charles Lindbergh was elected president. Ryan Murphy's upcoming Netflix limited series "Hollywood" reimagines the racial, sexual and social politics of Hollywood's Golden Age. With the slew of these kinds of limited series, many TV creators seem to be interested in the time period of American history at the moment. But as it stands with "City of Angels," the new addition to the "Penny Dreadful" universe feels more in line with Murphy's FX franchise "American Horror Story"; an anthology show that Penny Dreadful" always felt like it was purposely avoiding. With its attempt to express so many themes and ideas, "City of Angels" feels more overstuffed and daunting than "Penny Dreadful," which in hindsight was a focused and lean series. The new drama doesn't veer far from the worst tendencies of "AHS." but "City of Angels" is ultimately a smarter and more eloquent show that isn't as successful as its predecessor.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.

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