April 25, 2020

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels”


PENNY DREADFUL: CITY OF ANGELS:  Sunday 10PM on Showtime (available now via streaming/VOD)

PENNY DREADFUL: CITY OF ANGELS is Showtime and John Logan’s not particularly promising attempt to turn his previous hit series into an anthology.  The two shows have little in common, at least initially, beyond the general historical horror genre and Logan’s participation, along with the presence of Rory Kinnear in the ensemble cast.

This time, we’re in 1938 Los Angeles, and if that makes you think of Chinatown and the approach of World War II, it’s the right idea.  There are three connected storylines.  In one, Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto), the LAPD’s first Mexican-Americcan with the rank of Detective, works with his veteran partner Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane) to solve a series of ritual-themed murders that invoke Mexican folklore.  The victims are members of the family whose company is building LA’s first freeway, a route that will destroy one of the city’s Mexican-American neighborhoods, opposed by Tiago’s brother among others and pushed by the racist, corrupt City Councilman Charlton Townsend (Michael Gladis), who’s receiving secret backing from the Third Reich.  Thinking of which, in Beverly Hills we meet Peter Craft (Kinnear), a German-American pediatrician who’s a full-on Nazi sympathizer.  All of the stories feature a demonic figure in various guises (Natalie Dormer), as she pushes the humans to be their worst possible selves and accelerate bloodshed.

Logan has a distinguished career that includes everything from Gladiator to Sweeney Todd to Skyfall, but he seems out of his element here.  While the first Penny Dreadful made inventive use of combining horror figures like Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray and Henry Jekyll, the influences on City of Angels are merely lumped together, billboards with no subtext.  The horror element doesn’t add much–if anything, at this point it’s letting humans off the hook to suggest that they need demons to encourage their racism and propensity for violence.  Even worse, despite the demonic visits, nothing in City of Angels is particularly scary.  The on-the-nose dialogue echoes the many cop dramas that have trod the same streets, as well as all the melodramas about immigrant families troubled by issues of identity.  Logan seems to have assembled his elements rather than created a new formula for them.

Pilot director Paco Cabezas, who was behind the camera for several Penny Dreadful episodes and was more recently a house director on In the Badlands, gives the proceedings a polished historical sheen, but the 68-minute opening episode has the Prestige TV tendency to take a stolid pace, making it clear that it’s taking itself very, very seriously.  The cast is fine without being particularly impressive, although Kinnear is always worth watching and Dormer seems to be having fun with her various looks and accents.  The experiment of casting Lane as a hard-boiled cop, the kind of role Robert Duvall might have played 30 years ago, doesn’t quite work:  when he delivers a line like “Kid, it looks like our day off is fucked,” it sounds less like a cynical complaint than a punchline or the cue for a song.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels seems like the kind of project that likely sounded great in a pitch, bringing together franchise potential, colorful history, and some classy talent that’s delivered in the past.  But the unfortunate truth is that at this moment in history, the currently deserted streets of Los Angeles are more disturbing than anything Logan has put on the screen.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."