It’s understandably hard to make a show about California that doesn’t turn into a sprawling, disjointed mess because, well, California is a sprawling, disjointed mess connected only by a freeway system that looks like Medusa in high humidity. Penny Dreadful: City of Angels—creator John Logan‘s spiritual sequel to his Gothic horror drama that ended abruptly in 2016—adds another layer of irony to that idea by placing California’s quest for its first major freeway at its center, a cold move by the predominantly white governing class that rightfully enrages the Mexican-American population it will displace. The show itself is a series of isolated points in desperate need of a connecting tissue, but any attempt to find one kind of just adds to the discord. It’s ambitious as hell, occasionally visually striking, and filled with strong performances, but the story adds up to something about as deep as the L.A. River.
City of Angels is set in a Los Angeles where the supernatural has sewn the (very real) turbulence that plagued the city in 1938. At its center is Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto), the LAPD’s first Mexican-American detective, who is partnered with Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane), a Jewish LAPD old-timer who talks like every cast member in Newsies at the same time. Vega and Michener are set on the horrific murder of the Hazlett family, upscale Beverly Hills residents who are butchered and left for dead dressed in Día de Muertos iconography. The murder is a microcosm of the race war brewing throughout Los Angeles, spurred on by corrupt city councilman Charlton Townsend (Michael Gladis) and the Nazism quietly seeping its way into America.
As you can tell, that’s a whole lotta’ plot to pack into a show, and that’s without mentioning that Natalie Dormer plays a handful of characters as Magda, a shape-shifting demon who is quietly pushing all of the most volatile players toward chaos. On a pure popcorn camp level, the opportunity to watch Dormer sink her teeth into an entire roster of roles makes City of Angels worth a casual watch. But Magda is also indicative of what makes the show low-key infuriating. Aside from an opening scene that sees Magda laying down a challenge to death deity Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izza), she doesn’t have any clear purpose in her trickery throughout the first six episodes. That leaves a show looking to tackle lofty topics like race, status, and corruption with the over-arching message of “bad stuff happens,” almost letting some of the darker blotches on history off the hook. Magda is vibrant to watch but narratively superfluous to the story City of Angels is telling, almost a supernatural excuse to keep the Penny Dreadful moniker.
Even then, the central story isn’t easy to pin down, because City of Angels is so scattershot. Bouncing around between separate character studies isn’t inherently a bad thing—early Game of Thrones turned it into a phenomenon—but City of Angels stretches itself so thin you can’t really care about any place it lands. Because there’s so much plot here, any time we do spend with characters is usually spent talking, and talking, and taaaalking, people just explaining their place in this world ad nauseam. The strongest emotional hook is Vega being torn in two between his Chicano roots and the racist police force he’s made into his whole life, a struggle that takes on a Westside Story element after Vega falls in love with a sheltered radio evangelist named Molly (Kerry Bishé).
But the elements that overtly deal with racial struggles are when it becomes, let’s say, very clear that City of Angels is a show written by a white dude, and I say that as one of the whitest dudes walking this planet. The production design on City of Angels is still a dream, with a sense of the culture shining in every corner of the frame; there’s an electric scene set in an underground dance club in episode 3, “Wicked Old World” directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, that’s so vibrant it suggests John Logan should have just written a show about underground dance clubs. Because his show about a simmering race war is shockingly shallow, told like someone describing a fight they witnessed from very far away, using just the loudest possible details. Racists making bargain-bin jokes about taco carts and donkeys facing off against an exclusively angry mob clutching Rosary beads. There’s no true sense of immersion into a very delicate topic, so any attempt at a statement rings hollow.
It was a strange moment when the original Penny Dreadful stopped on an unexpected dime, yeah. But it’s stranger still that the title is returning for a show that not only doesn’t feel anything like its predecessor but also doesn’t feel like a single, complete show at all. A show following a main character who can’t decide where he belongs is intriguing. A show with the same conflict can only hold together so long.
Rating: ★★ Fair — Only for the dedicated
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels debuts on Showtime on Sunday, April 26.