The original Penny Dreadful and its new “spiritual sequel,” Penny Dreadful: City of Angels are fundamentally different projects, at least if the inaugural episode of the latter is any indication. There are definitely some through lines in the series’ obsessions: a macabre fascination with ecstatic religious praxis, a characterization of mankind as essentially venal and corrupt, and a desire to acknowledge the racist history of Anglo and American empire. But otherwise, the shows seem to mostly share a desire to communicate a deep love of the times and places in which they are set. Showrunner John Logan’s devotion to bringing 1891 London to glorious, operatic life seems similarly channeled, here, to the Los Angeles of 1938.
The differences between localities also means a difference in tone. The original Penny Dreadful is a somber, Gothic elegy. Its protagonists were plagued by inner turmoil expressed in quiet, contemplative tones (save for the few, delicious moments when Eva Green went full Eva Green). The show’s color palette was full of grays, muted greens, and dark, woody browns. City of Angels, which premiered last night on Showtime, is more brooding than somber—a classic noir. Its palette is the oversaturated whites and tans and yellows that feel both surreal and, somehow, exactly like the Los Angeles outside my window (I live right along the Arroyo Seco, where much of the action of the show takes place).
City of Angels focuses on the Vega family: mother Maria (Babel and The Strain’s Adriana Barraza) is a maid and worshiper of Mexican folk-goddess and psychopomp, Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo); middle son Tiago (Daniel Zovatto) has just been promoted to the first Chicano LAPD detective; eldest son Raul (CSI: Miami’s Adam Rodriguez) is a cannery worker and the leader of a protest group trying to save the Vegas’ Arroyo Seco community. There are two younger Vega siblings, Mateo and Josefina (played by Jonathan Nieves and Jessica Garza, respectively), who are part of the main cast but don’t yet figure heavily into the plot.
This focus on a single family is another departure from the original Penny Dreadful, which was obsessively focused on a found family of outcasts, exiles, and dissidents, most of whom were estranged from or actively trying to escape their families of origin. But that tonal shift is especially apt as this incarnation of Penny Dreadful is centered on the very corporeal, external oppression of communities of color rather than the tortured convolutions of individual white psyches. If the original was, to an extent, all about the horrors of isolation, City of Angels is about the violence and tensions that build as communities press up against malicious ideologies and business interests.
This first episode sets up many interconnected strands that don’t yet come together. Tiago and his partner, Lewis Michener (Broadway legend Nathan Lane), investigate the murder of a wealthy, white evangelical family whose corpses have been carved and painted to look like icons of Santa Muerte. They also clash with Police Chief Vanderhoff (Star Trek: TNG’s Brent Spiner) who worries that a white family seemingly murdered by non-white cultists will inflame racial tensions.
Raul attempts to stop Councilman Townsend’s (Mad Men alum and Orson Welles doppelgänger Michael Gladis) plans to bulldoze Arroyo Seco neighborhoods to build what will eventually become the Pasadena Freeway (yes, this is the plot of Who Framed Roger Rabbit—a familiar tentpole of Angeleno noir is transportation politics, or water politics, or both). Townsend is later approached by Richard Goss (Thomas Kretschmann), a Nazi spy who offers to make Townsend Mayor of Los Angeles in return for his allegiance to Hitler.
Rory Kinnear (the only returning cast member from the original series) is allowed to have his actual hairline this time around, though not allowed to use his actual accent in his role as Peter Craft, a seemingly kindly German physician whose public, affable endorsement of Nazism is the most chilling element in an episode that includes a heavy dose of supernatural body horror.
Hovering over all of this is the demonic Magda (Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer), the sister of Santa Muerte who wants to incite an all-consuming race war. She is an earthier, less ethereal being than her sister (who sports white robes, intense contact lenses, and an ornate crown that’s half Mexica calendar, half Catholic reliquary). Magda, by contrast, stalks scenes of brutality and carnage wearing what looks like a black leather reinterpretation of Eva Green’s wardrobe from the original show, whispering in the ears of hapless combatants, inciting them to further violence. She also adopts human form, taking on various incarnations: pretending to be an abused, Berlin-born housewife whose son is one of Craft’s patients, as well as serving as Townsend’s magnetic, indefatigable secretary who arranges his meeting with Goss.
By the end of this first episode, the pieces have slid into place and the Vega family is torn apart as Tiago is forced to shoot a Magda-ensorceled Raul who, in the midst of an LAPD attack on Arroyo Seco protesters, begins indiscriminately murdering police officers. Brother has killed brother, and Magda’s race war has begun.
A Better Story About Race Than the Original
Where issues of race were a decidedly mixed bag in the original series, they are front and center here, and are handled with a great deal of care. John Logan has made sure to have Latinx writers, directors, and producers on the project which, thus far, seems to have the effect of keeping characters of color from serving as disposable bit players (as they often did in Penny Dreadful).
The subject matter itself also makes such erasure and relegation far less possible. In the original series, the racist foundation of Sir Malcolm’s colonial African explorations and Ethan Chandler’s service in the American cavalry were addressed, but they were mostly treated as bits of backstory. Here, the oppression and murder of people of color for profit serves as the axis of the plot, in keeping with the setting: Los Angeles has had a long and awful history of destroying its indigenous and non-white communities.
There has been a recent move in prestige TV to address some of that history. The second season of AMC’s The Terror focused on the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during WWII, with the raid of the Japanese immigrant community on Terminal Island being a central moment. TNT’s I Am The Night told a true(ish) crime story about black identity set against the backdrop of the 1965 Watts Uprising. So far, I am cautiously optimistic that City of Angels will avoid the pitfalls of its predecessor and join the recent season of HBO’s Watchmen in bringing largely forgotten American atrocities to light.
A Prescient Look at the Rise of Fascism
Late in the episode, there is an exchange between Maria Vega and the summoned apparition of Santa Muerte wherein the Vega matriarch begs for aid:
Santa Muerte: There is a prophecy that a time will come when nation will battle nation, when race will devour race, when brother will kill brother until not a soul is left.
Maria: And is that time now?
Santa Muerte: Who can say?
This feels like one of the cleverer nods to the show’s unfortunate relevance to the present day. With fascism and bigotry (especially anti-Latinx bigotry) on the rise in the United States, Maria’s assumption that 1938 is the singular apocalyptic moment when hatred destroys humanity feels far more tenuous than it might have four years ago. There has been a lot of recent TV devoted to the legacy of Nazism. But unlike, say Amazon Prime’s Hunters, which contends that, post-WWII, Nazis hid in the shadows and needed to be ferreted out, or The Man in the High Castle, which imagines that our current world is the better, less horrific timeline that we must get back to, City of Angels tackles an important question head-on: how do we confront Nazism and white supremacy that sits in the open and asks to be given polite consideration?
Townsend’s Faustian bargain with Goss is the typical anti-Nazi stuff: the Third Reich skulks around the corners of American society, embarrassed or unwilling to show its face in the open. But in Craft’s German-American Bund, we see a far more unsettling face of fascism. Craft, throughout the entire episode, never displays any behavior that is unsympathetic. He is kind to his wife (Piper Perabo) and their children. He is good to Maria, his maid. He resists the temptation to have an affair with his patient’s mother while still displaying a singular empathy for her bleak situation. Even when he dons Nazi regalia and marches while flying a swastika flag, he is offputtingly charming and thoughtful, and funny.
The scene reminds me of nothing so much as the “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” number from the 1972 film adaptation of Cabaret. The power of the fascist state and its state-sanctioned genocide is not in the violence that America loves to represent in war films when it rightly condemns Nazis. It lies instead in its seductive, aesthetically-pleasing, pastoral fantasies of recapturing a simpler past once again. In putting the disarmingly kind Craft at the center of its Nazi plot—and especially in giving us nearly ten uninterrupted minutes painting him as a likable, compassionate man—City of Angels asks us to, momentarily, sympathize with its Nazi protagonist…the better to sicken and appall us when we understand what he is asking of his fellow Angelenos. It is essentially following the argument that literary critic Stanley Fish makes about Paradise Lost in his 1967 book, Surprised by Sin: you cannot understand the danger that the Devil poses if you’re never drawn in by the temptation he embodies—Milton’s Satan forces us to confront our own spiritual vulnerabilities. The fact that Craft pointedly ends his speech with the words “America First” delivers a disquieting gut punch to the audience.
It also seems as though one of the major themes of the series will explore how evil is aided by indifference. In the aforementioned conversation between Santa Muerte and Maria, the goddess refuses to help, saying that she is so choked by the agony of death that she has “no heart to care for man.” City of Angels imagines a world where active malice and despair is weighed against weariness and exhaustion. Evil flourishes because those who should oppose it can no longer muster the energy to fight. It’s bleak, and it feels very pointed in this particular moment.
A Stunning Love Letter to Los Angeles
When I saw the first episode of the original Penny Dreadful, the thing that impressed me most was how much its creators clearly loved the Victorian Gothic. They wanted, it seemed, to get things exactly right. City of Angels seems to have the same approach and attitude towards Los Angeles. Now, as a Chicanx lifelong Angeleno who teaches Victorian Gothic literature, it does seem like John Logan might be interested in narrowcasting directly to me. But even if you aren’t Tyler Dean, I think there is still quite a bit to love about the show’s portrayal of L.A.
I mentioned its perfect color palette before, but the show’s location scouting and cinematography is also great. John Conroy’s shots capture the Los Angeles river with its arcing bridges and stark, concrete basin, looking like nothing so much as a great, sun-bleached ribcage. The doomed Arroyo Seco bungalows are an invitingly shady bit of a forgotten Los Angeles, still visible if you squint at nearby neighborhoods like El Sereno or Franklin Hills. While Goss waxes grandiloquent about Albert Speer’s architectural overhaul of the Third Reich, there is an impressive Art Deco majesty to L.A’s City Hall and the Grand Park fountain, even if it is the site of Craft’s pro-Nazi oration.
There are little details as well. Though we have only gotten a glimpse of Sister Molly (Halt and Catch Fire’s Kerry Bishé), an evangelical proselytizer held in deep reverence by Tiago and Micheson’s murdered family, all of her iconography looks to be a perfect pastiche of Los Angeles’ own Depression-era prophet, Aimee Semple McPhereson. In the opening scene where Santa Muerte and Magda battle over the souls of mankind, there is a long tracking shot of Magda wandering through lettuce fields—for a moment, before they erupt into fiery chaos, the plants desiccate and whither. It feels like a subtle visual nod to the last shot of the series premiere of that other great (partially) Southern California-based, 1930s supernatural horror epic: HBO’s Carnivàle. One of that show’s alums, the great Amy Madigan, is set to be a recurring character this season, so perhaps the nod is intentional.
All in all, if one can forgive the weirdly subpar CGI in the opening sequence, City of Angels looks to be a worthy companion to the original Penny Dreadful. It isn’t a sequel. It likely won’t scratch your Eva Green itch. But, thus far, it feels like a series crafted with the same love, attention to detail, and interest in unsettling, atmospheric horror as Logan’s earlier story. As a shameless stan of the previous series, I’m both disappointed and relieved that it is staking out its own territory, so unrelated to the original. I desperately want more of the singular magic that was Eva Green/Vanessa Ives, and that stellar supporting case. But it also frees up City of Angels to be its own show and live outside the shadow of the original. I’ll take what I can get where Penny Dreadful is concerned, and if the premiere is any indication, there will be plenty of reasons to stay tuned this season.
Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. He is one half of the Lincoln & Welles podcast available on Apple Podcasts or through your favorite podcatcher. More of his writing can be found at his website and his fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary.