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Showtime's Penny Dreadful: City of Angels is good period TV

  • "It would be wholly understandable if fans of Showtime’s original Penny Dreadful approached its 'spiritual descendant' City of Angels with as much trepidation as excitement," says Charlie Mason. "How, we might wonder, could any offspring of John Logan’s beloved monster mash live up to the awful beauty of its parent? How could any new characters compare to the likes of Miss Vanessa Ives and the Creature? How could the Los Angeles of 1938 cast enough shadows to frighten us the way that the London of 1891 did? Well… ? Having screened the first six episodes of City of Angels (which premieres Sunday, April 26, at 10/9c), I now think we were — or at least I was — asking the wrong questions. The new series has in common with its predecessor only a supernatural element, enviable production values and Logan’s trademark dialogue, bleak poetry hung in the air like the silken strands of a spiderweb. It isn’t in any way trying to copy or immortalize its forebear. So the most germane question to ask isn’t 'Is it as good as the original?' but 'Is it good, period?' Thankfully, the answer is a resounding yes."


    • City of Angels does the opposite of the original Penny Dreadful: "I loved the exercise of John Logan's three-season Showtime drama Penny Dreadful, which ostensibly took the sensationalistic horror tropes of Victorian 'penny dreadful' books and gave them a rapturous prestige TV polish," says Daniel Fienberg. "The series brought new narrative complexity and psychological — and especially psychosexual — richness to a pastiche of familiar characters, from Frankenstein's monster to Dr. Jekyll to myriad interconnected vampires, werewolves and witches. Resurrected nearly four years after its seemingly abrupt conclusion, the new Penny Dreadful, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, is harder to figure out. If anything, it feels like it has the opposite mission: Penny Dreadful: City of Angels takes the actual history of Los Angeles, along with traditions and trappings of actual religions, and somehow fictionalizes them, making them more familiar and less complex."
    • City of Angels cements itself as a fine entrant in the horror-on-TV genre: "This series knows well that horror exists within the context of history — that, indeed, some of the greatest chills of all can be wrung from our real-life inhumanity as witnessed over time," says Daniel D'Addario. "This show’s subplot about Nazi infiltration into the government is played both with outsized, creeping dread and with a certain degree of frankness and plainspokenness. For all that it’s shepherded along by an immortal demon, it’s also a story with its roots in human frailty. (In this regard, this show is more watchable and perhaps more creatively successful than two other shows about Third Reich members or sympathizers making inroads stateside, the loopy Amazon fantasia Hunters or the rigorous, glossily remote The Plot Against America.)"
    • Natalie Dormer's Magda seems tacked on to give City of Angels the Penny Dreadful name: "What gives City of Angels permission to sell itself as a Penny Dreadful story is the supernatural battle playing out in the margins," says Kelly Connolly. "The drama's main antagonist is Magda (Game of Thrones' Natalie Dormer), a ruthless, shape-shifting demon who takes on human guises in order to cause trouble. She says she's out to prove to Santa Muerte, her sister, that human nature is inherently evil, but Magda also starts chaos just because she likes it. Dormer is a chameleon in the role, and it's a blast to watch her rotate from charismatic to delicate to mousy to gangster-chic, manipulating everyone in her path. Which only makes it more frustrating that Magda, in her pure demon form, feels tacked on to the series, changing the rules of the game in ways that don't always feel necessary, except to give the show an excuse to be called Penny Dreadful. The character is the weakest element of the pilot: She's the personification of evil whispering in men's ears, which at this point has become a stale way for genre TV to ask big questions about why people do terrible things. After the pilot, Magda spends most of her time masquerading as different humans, who are engaging on their own. But her big-picture purpose isn't clear yet, at least in the six episodes made available for review."
    • Natalie Dormer, to her credit, makes each character she plays feel fully formed and vibrant: "Her most murderous and manipulative character is that of Alex, the Girl Friday to self-conscious Los Angeles Councilman, Charlton Townsend who is overseeing the obliteration of the Chicano neighborhood Belvedere Heights to create the Arroyo-Seco highway," says Kristen Lopez. "With her perpetually puckered lips and homely appearance, Dormer is the devil literally whispering in Townsend’s ear. Conversely, she’s more playful as the seemingly sweet German woman, Elsa, luring in doctor Peter Craft (Rory Kinnear)."
    • Daniel Zovatto says it was awesome to have a front row seat to Nathan Lane acting
    • Natalie Dormer: "As an actress, playing a character like that is so liberating because there’s absolutely no vanity attached"
    • Costume designer Christie Wittenborn explains how she kept up with Dormer's shape-shifting character
    • Creator John Logan wanted to focus on the displacement of Latinos in 1938 Los Angeles: “I thought that was a fascinating story,” Logan says. “Because, how did that happen? If you were a poor Latino family living in what’s now East L.A., and the city said, ‘Eminent domain — we’re going to bulldoze your house and you’ve got to move,’ where are you going to go? Restrictive housing covenants said you couldn’t move to this or that neighborhood. And so the idea of social displacement of ethnic minorities became what I was interested in writing about. And you can’t tell the story about the history of Los Angeles without dealing with the Mexican American story. And you can’t tell the story about the building of freeways without dealing with the communities that were displaced.”

    TOPICS: Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, Showtime, Penny Dreadful, Christie Wittenborn, Daniel Zovatto, John Logan, Natalie Dormer, Costume Design