In 1938, Los Angeles is an angry place, watched over by a furious supernatural entity, Magda (Natalie Dormer). Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto) is about to start his first day as the first Chicano detective in the LAPD. He’ll encounter murder, riots, Nazis and more in a city — a world — on the brink of eruption.
Episodes viewed: 4 of 10
The first iteration of Penny Dreadful mixed classic horror characters — Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll, Dracula — in Victorian London in a saga about the monstrousness of man and assorted psychosexual doings. It was handsomely produced, very creepy and a little bit camp. A marvellous combination. City Of Angels, a tangentially connected spin-off, takes a much more straight-faced approach, with little of the scary stuff. It’s every bit as handsome, but the loss of the spookiness and silliness has leeched it of much of the original’s fun.
It opens with a doozy of a prologue. Magda (Natalie Dormer), a supernatural being who delights in destruction, delivers a monologue about a coming war that will pit all races against one another. Keen for that war to get a wriggle on, she marches through a cornfield full of Mexican workers, setting it ablaze and burning everyone in it. Her solemn ‘sister’, Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo), the Angel of Holy Death, gathers up the souls to usher them to the afterlife. One of the dead is the father of a boy called Tiago Vega.
It’s an awful lot to keep track of, the focus moving around so widely that progress in any one strand is as slow as the 405 in rush hour.
Many years later, in 1938 Los Angeles, Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto) is a grown man, about to become the first Chicano LAPD detective. The promised race war is coming. Vega’s first assignment is to find the killer who left four bodies, mutilated and painted with Day Of The Dead make-up, baking in the LA River basin.
The investigation of that grizzly murder is just a small part of City Of Angels’ story. John Logan, who created both this and the original series, has a lot of ideas he wants to cover. Broadly tied to real events, City Of Angels takes in systemic police racism, the evolution of the immigrant experience, government corruption, the eve of World War II (Rory Kinnear, as a German paediatrician/Nazi, is the sole carry-over from the original series’ cast), and the hypocrisy of for-profit religion. That’s not to mention romances, family in-fighting and Nathan Lane cast marvellously against type as a world-worn detective-cum-Nazi hunter. It’s an awful lot to keep track of, the focus moving around so widely that progress in any one strand is as slow as the 405 in rush hour.
There’s an effort to give the knot of plots some cohesion by having Dormer play multiple roles as Magda shifts into different shapes to spread maximum mischief: a meddling assistant to a compromised councilman; a German mother manipulating Kinnear’s Nazi; a zoot-suited revolutionary. Though she seems to be having an infectiously fun time with the dressing-up box, her repeated appearance doesn’t bring everything together; it just makes the bits she’s in more fun.
City Of Angels has loads of ideas and hard echoes of the world right now, but there’s too much going on for one show. In trying to talk about so much, its message comes out a little garbled.
The original was definitively a horror-drama, but there’s so little scary stuff here that it’s unclear why it needed to be part of the Penny Dreadful ‘universe’. Packed with ideas, it would have been more arresting if the show had focused on fewer of them.