PENNY DREADFUL: CITY OF ANGELS (S1) gets 7/10 The devil’s in the details

Season 1: Episodes 1, 2

Created by John Logan
Starring Daniel Zovatto, Natalie Dormer, Nathan Lane, Adriana Barraza
Network: SHOWTIME (screening on Stan)


Los Angeles, 1938. As Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto) becomes LAPD’s first Mexican-American detective, the city itself is on the verge of a race riot. The construction of a new freeway system threatens the homes of his family and former neighbours. Yet there is something darker fuelling the fire, as a brutal ritualistic murder threatens to bring Vega into the conflict between two divine entities – Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo), and her dark sister (Natalie Dormer), as the two struggle to control the hearts of man.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels is certainly lurid and pulp, but that only makes sense given the series history. It is not the blood-soaked Gothic melodrama of its Victorian predecessor, instead delving into its own period roots, and exploring the tropes from the era of the hard-boiled detective. As such we have a wondrous pulp noir sensibility expanded on by this show as the plot throws a plethora of ideas at us. Gruesome ritualistic murders, corrupt city officials, foreign spies, bent cops, mystical beings, radio evangelism, American Nazis, the A-bomb, and a brewing race war, all set against the background of 1930s LA. It’s a heady mix, with the only things missing being the Rocketeer, and H.P Lovecraft’s Elder Gods – and honestly, I wouldn’t rule out either.

The city is brought to vivid life, giving us the rich background for this drama to play out against, and a feeling of the period and the history. Yet all this is a microcosm for the world and the stage for which two vast cosmic beings engage in battle, using humans as their pawns. Drawing on aspects of Mexican-American folklore adds an element of unfamiliarity to the proceedings, and allows City of Angels to draw on some stunning imagery, tinged with Judeo-Christian meaning, but filtered through contact with Mesoamerican beliefs. The result is something beautiful, and different to what we’ve seen before.

It’s also something that Natalie Dormer (The Tudors, Game of Thrones) is clearly having fun with. As the dark half of this cosmic struggle she gets to play multiple roles in her attempt to poison men’s attitudes, and make them succumb to their worst instincts. This gives her licence to stretch her acting range.

Daniel Zovatto (It Follows, Don’t Breathe) is providing a solid backbone to the story as Detective Tiago Vega. He’s slightly hampered by serving as the audience’s POV character, but there’s enough family and departmental drama associated with him to allow Zovatto’s talent to shine through. However Nathan Lane (The Producers, The Lion King) is so far the stand out as Tiago’s inveterate partner. He brings an easy likeability to the role, while conveying an unforced depth of character (with his own agenda and secrets).

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels certainly has the capacity to explore the seedy underbelly of American history through the lens of pulpy crime and horror, allowing us to examine issues of inequality and corruption at a safe fictional distance. With its strong production values, interesting characters and abundance of plot threads, this certainly holds a lot of promise.