Penny Dreadful: City of Angels. Showtime. Sunday, April 26, 10 p.m.
Three years after Showtime's splendid Victorian London gothic mash-up Penny Dreadful aired its final episode, it's back (say it like this!), but with a different cast, in a different city, in a different era, and honestly, no real link of any kind to the show's earlier version. In fact, it's more like a shirttail cousin to Chinatown, with freeways substituting for water rights, Nazis and demons for cops and developers, and bitter regret for Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, Roman Polanski and Robert Townsend.
The derivativeness of City of Angels doesn't end there. Its fundamental theme—that the rise of fascism in the 1930s was an expression of supernatural evil—is lifted directly from HBO's 2003-05 series Carnivale. Its conflation of American racism with World War II was the backbone of the 2019 season of AMC's The Terror. The show's motto seems to be, anything you can do, we can do worse.
This is possibly an overly harsh assessment of City of Angels, which has some interesting moments. But for a series that makes so much of its moral and intellectual pretensions, its shortcomings are too grievous to be ignored.
The show takes place set in 1938 Los Angeles—a restless era of racial tension, Hollywood excess and urban uncertainty, when the first freeways were just beginning to knit Southern California's disparate communities into a single metropolitan area—but its scene is set in a brief prologue 25 years earlier, as two angels, watching farmworkers sweat in the fields outside the city, muse on their fate. (And one of City of Angel's principal flaws, its utter lack of nuance or subtlety, is apparent from the opening moments. One angle is clad in white, one in black. Guess which is the wicked one?)
Warns the just-possibly-evil angel, Magda (Natalie Dormer, Game of Thrones): "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." Then she nudges the process along, incinerating the field and nearly everyone in it, while the curiously indifferent white-hat angel (Santa Muerte, played by Lorenza Izzo of Hulu's sitcom Casual) watches without protest—though she does shove one little boy out of the way of the blaze.
When the story jumps forward, that little boy has grown up to be the LAPD's first Mexican-American detective, Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto of the short-lived HBO series Here And Now), who's held in contempt by both his fellow cops ("In this life, you're a cowboy or you're an Indian—you better fucking choose") and his Chicano ex-friends (who wonder if he's "a Mexican pretending to be a cop or a cop pretending to be Mexican").
It doesn't help that on his first day, Vega and his partner, the equally outcast Jew Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane, Modern Family), draw the quadruple murder of a prominent Beverly Hills family whose mutilated corpses have been made up—and carved up—to look like Day of the Dead santos. A message written on a nearby wall—"You take our heart, we'll take yours," a clear reference to the planned construction of a freeway through the middle of a nearby Mexican-American neighborhood—lead to an obvious, if not necessarily correct, conclusion: "This is some spic thing," as Michener puts it.
Michener, meanwhile, has his own ethnic demons to fight. With a handful of middle-aged Jewish friends, he's monitoring a small but growing band of local Nazis, who mostly like to wave swastika-festooned flags as they goose-step around public parks. But Michener's paranoia turns out to be startlingly on-target when his buddies follow the Nazis late one night and discover their destination is Cal Tech's Jet Propulsion Lab, where serious experiments in rocketry are underway. What Michener doesn't discover: The head Nazi has just acquired a pretty German expat girlfriend named Elsa, who looks like—and is—a blonde version of the evil angel Magda.
Elsa, too, is played by Dormer, who also performs two other iterations of the dark angel. One, Alex, is a frumpy but maliciously clever aide to a freeway-mad city councilman; another, Rio, is the bisexual ringleader of a pachuco gang that's a prime suspect in the murder of the Beverly Hills family. Her four performances are a real tour de force—it's practically impossible to believe that the sleekly macho Rio and the disturbingly seductive Magda (who looks eerily like a young Joan Collins) are played by the same person. Much of the rest of the cast also does a good job, particularly Lane as the world-weary detective Michenet, and Kerry Lynne Bishé (Halt and Catch Fire), who gives an unexpectedly sweet performance as Sister Molly, a singing radio evangelist clearly modeled on Aimee Semple McPherson.
But they're undone by Executive Producer John Logan and his writers' room, whose favorite direction is over the top. No question the Los Angeles of the time was a profoundly racist place. (Franklin Delano Roosevelt's White House, which was in the process of deporting two million or so supposed Mexicans without much regard to their actual legal status in a Depression-induced spasm of bigotry, didn't help much.) Only a few years later, Los Angeles would erupt in the so-called Zoot Suit Riots that even city authorities would admit were triggered by grotesquely racist police brutality.
But was there really not a single white person in the entire metropolitan area who couldn't go three words without saying "spic" or "hymie"? Did Los Angeles cops really roam hospital corridors beating and lacerating random Mexican-Americans? Would a city councilman really observe of Adolf Hitler, "There's a fellow who understands the judicious exercise of power"? I'll admit I laughed when a Nazi spy pitched a potential recruit by mentioning that he'd just come from measuring Wilshire Boulevard to see if it could handle Panzers for the German victory parade. But given how overwrought and overdrawn the rest of City of Angels was, I'm not at all sure that was intended to be funny.