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Scott D. Pierce: New ‘Penny Dreadful’ focuses on ‘The City of Angels,’ but the message gets somewhat lost behind the magic

(Photo courtesy of Justin Lubin/Showtime) Daniel Zovatto as Tiago Vega and Nathan Lane as Lewis Michener in “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.”

There’s an awful lot happening in “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.” Racism. Nazis. Police brutality. Anti-immigration views. Religion. Folklore. Greed. Ambition. Urbanization. Inter-family warfare. Horrific murders.
And there’s a demon and the angel of death.
Showtime is calling “City of Angels” (Sunday, 8:10 p.m.) the “spiritual descendant” of the original “Penny Dreadful,” but the two have no links other than the title and the same creator/write/executive producer, John Logan. The original was set in 19th century England and featured Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Dorian Gray, among others. “City of Angels” is set in 1938 Los Angeles and revolves around the building of that city’s first freeway.
Logan said Showtime executives encouraged him to let them know if he ever had an idea for another series. ”And the more I thought about this idea and the folk Catholic deity of Santa Muerte, the more I thought it could fit under the rubric of ‘Penny Dreadful,’” he said. “So I showed up at their office one day and said, ‘It’s not Victorian. It’s not Gothic. It’s the opposite. It’s bright, sunny L.A., and it’s about history and politics.’”
You don’t need to have seen the first series to watch the second — you don’t even need to know that it existed. Only one actor returns, and this time Rory Kinnear is playing an expatriate German doctor, Peter Craft, not one of Dr. Frankenstein’s creatures.
“After three years of having to put on three and a half hours of makeup every day, John [Logan] had enough guilt in him that he offered me this, which is makeup-free,” Kinnear said. “None of which you need to know about to watch this new series, either.”
“City of Angels” opens a couple of decades before the main narrative. A demon named Magda (Natalie Dormer) tells her sister, “There will come a time when the world is ready for me. When nation will battle nation. When race will devour race. When brother will kill brother until not a soul is left.”
Magda’s sister is Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo), the Angel of Death. And when Magda sets fields ablaze, killing the father of young Tiago, Santa Muerte intervenes to save the boy’s life.
There’s a quick flash forward to 1938, and Tiago (Daniel Zovatto) has just become the LAPD’s first Mexican American detective. On his first day on the job, he and his veteran partner, Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane) are faced with an unspeakable crime — several mutilated bodies, their faces made up to look like something from the Day of the Dead, their hearts cut out and a message left in Spanish.
It’s seemingly tied to the plan to build the Arroyo Seco Parkway between downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena, which both was L.A.’s first freeway and a construction project that destroyed a number of Hispanic neighborhoods. Not only is the city councilman behind the plan, Charles Townsend (Michael Gladis), in league with Nazis who are infiltrating Southern California, but the murders are also tied to radio evangelists.
So, yeah, there’s a lot going on.
“It’s Raymond Chandler meets Rod Serling, and it’s such a refreshing take on sort of the detective genre,” Lane said. “And then with these supernatural elements.”

The look of the show — the vintage fashion, 1930s automobiles and locations — is amazing. And it’s not the look we generally associate with 1930s L.A.
“When people think of Los Angeles in the 1930s, they invariably think about Hollywood and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Dorothy in the red slippers,” Logan said. “And that’s not our show. Our show is about downtown L.A., about Pasadena, about the beach, about all the different characters and social worlds interacting that have nothing to do with Hollywood.”
Dormer plays Magda, and Magda appears in many forms. She’s Townsend’s homely assistant; a gorgeous mother who tempts Craft; the leader of a Chicano gang, with many more to come.
“This is the actor’s dream, to play countless iterations and countless characterizations,” Dormer said. “This is catnip to an actor.”
Magda is always there to urge people to indulge in their worst instincts.
And that’s the biggest problem with “City of Angels.” The truth is that, yes, all that racism, police corruption, thoughtless social engineering and even the Nazi infiltrators actually existed in 1938 Los Angeles. None of it required a demon to bring it out.
Magda whispering, infiltrating and influencing relieves the perpetrators of responsibility for their actions, to some extent. It smacks of a catchphrase popularized by the late comedian Flip Wilson in the 1970s — “The devil made me do it.”
Logan did an enormous amount of research. He’s got maps of Los Angeles in 1938 and today, complete with all those freeways. He’s passionate about what happened to the city.
“If you live on Cesar Chavez Avenue and you want to walk to Los Angeles County General Hospital, less than half a mile away, you have to cross 41 lanes of freeway,” he said. “And I found that a compelling story to tell, and that’s where it came from.”
Logan didn’t invent Nazis infiltrating prewar America and interfering in some of our elections. And he’s quick to point out the modern parallels.
“The most important thing to remember about this show is, although it’s set in 1938, it’s about 2020,” he said.
“Looking over the world landscape now, I’m struck by parallels [between] the late ′30s and what’s going on now — particularly the rise of extremist political hatred, of a sort of racist demagoguery that is taken for granted, by the pernicious danger of a foreign power in our electoral process, in our communication, and particularly by the marginalization and victimization of an ethnic community,” he said. “… It reminds me of exactly how I feel now, which is there’s a monster out there, and I don’t understand it.”
But the impact of that gets lost, to some extent, behind the supernatural elements.
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