Synopsis: When a grisly murder shocks Los Angeles in 1938, Detective Tiago Vega and his partner Lewis Michener become embroiled in an epic story that reflects the rich history of the city.
Review: This review contains spoilers.
With Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, John Logan transitions from Victorian Gothic to L.A. Noir. In the process, he improves on his predecessor series with a different structure and tone
I enjoyed the original Penny Dreadful immensely. However, I enjoyed the creatures in the Creature Feature more than Vanessa Ives. To be sure, Eva Green’s performance was spectacular, but Vanessa overshadowed Frankenstein’s Monster, Dorian Gray, the Werewolf, the Bride, Dracula, and even the Mummy in the Titan Comics continuation.
Everything unapologetically revolved around Vanessa, leaving the others with unfulfilled potential. Logan appears to have realized that shortcoming in crafting his follow up, While he builds Penny Dreadful: City of Angels around another charismatic character and actress, he does so in a way that gives everyone else needed room.
Logan’s first improvement is in tone. There are two schools of thought in gothic storytelling. The original Penny Dreadful explored the notion that black is the absence of all color. The new installment embodies the notion that black is the presence of all colors mixed together.
In the premiere episode, demoness Magda kills Tiago’s father and other laborers in the field in broad daylight, and Magda (along with avatars Alex, Elsa, and Rio) continues to act at all hours throughout the season. Additionally, the dance numbers at The Crimson Cat, featuring authentic zoot suits in and around more death and mayhem, contribute a brightness that makes the darkness more meaningful and vice versa.
Moreover, Logan foregoes excessive Catholic guilt, opting instead for a bit more Liberation Theology and the idea that God helps those who help themselves. He extends this to the Jewish characters in a particularly satisfying subplot that sees Lewis Michener join forces with Meyer Lansky’s mob in an effort to stop the Nazis from gaining a pre-war foothold in L.A.
Logan’s second improvement is structural. Magda is the new Vanessa, and she interacts with and ties together many supporting characters the way Vanessa did. The chief difference is that Magda’s avatars split from her and function concurrently so that all subplots are addressed in every episode. There’s even a scene toward the end in which one of the avatars coordinates with another to provide the catalyst for the second of two major riots.
Another structural tweak is that Magda, a demoness, and her “sister,” La Santa Muerte, are the only supernatural beings. There aren’t half a dozen others for her to overshadow. Additionally, La Santa Muerte is an actively worshipped, if controversial, figure. As a result, Logan has to be more circumspect with her. This forces him to place more of the narrative on his original character Magda’s shoulders. As a result, Magda and her avatars earn their central status within the ensemble more organically.
The downside of the dynamic between Magda and La Santa Muerte is the jilted friend/lover bond Magda hints at reduces metaphysical complexity to bad fanfic. I won’t fault Logan for that, though. The need to reduce the religious into secular terms always weakens these stories and creates a systemic fault beyond any individual writer’s ability to address.
Natalie Dormer is utterly, preternaturally superb in a four-in-one role. Every reviewer gushes about her and should gush, but I want to highlight other performances here. First, Adriana Barraza is wonderful as matriarch Maria Vega. Her family scenes sparkle with life, depth, and authenticity. Her one scene with Dormer as Magda — a variation on the confrontational exorcism trope — is a gender-flipped catharsis we didn’t know we needed.
Next, there’s the equally fierce quietude of Nathan Lane, who absolutely kills it in a role no one would have thought he could play. Like Robin Williams, he shows us that sometimes comedians make the best dramatic actors. He puts a Jewish spin on the aging noir detective armed to fight Nazis and help his idiot child partner, who is too young to clean up his own mess. Every scene justifies the production. Some of those scenes are with Star Trek: The Next Generation alum Brent Spiner — an additionally welcome surprise as the precinct captain.
I’m putting the final spotlight in a cast full of awesome actors on Lorenza Izzo, who has the unenviable task of portraying La Santa Muerte. Dormer garners righteous praise, but scene partners matter in heightened stories like these. Viewers feel La Santa Muerte’s presence as keenly as they do Magda’s, even when she’s not there. Izzo conveys sad, steely grace and the camaraderie of death wonderfully. The scene with suicided Molly, played by the equally committed Kerry Bishé encapsulates her performance and everything death in life should be.
The first season of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels is a well-produced and a promising start. I just hope pandemic protocols don’t completely eliminate the communal aspects of the storytelling in subsequent seasons. It’s by definition a tale about people coming together in groups to respond to life and death — good and evil. Social distancing will impact the show thematically as well as physically. The production team will have to be extremely creative or wait the virus out.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, Season 1 is available on DVD and V.O.D. now. It is currently airing in the UK on Sky Atlantic and is available in its entirety to Sky Q Customers.
- Music and Choreography10