Starring Natalie Dormer, Daniel Zovatto, Nathan Lane, Rory Kinnear.
Horror, U.S.

Now screening on Sky Atlantic.


The original series of Penny Dreadful specialised in gothic horror, playing with the characters of Mina Harker, Dorian Gray and Frankenstein’s Monster with werewolves and demons thrown into the mix. Rich in atmosphere and big in budget, thanks to the clout of its producer Sam Mendes and screenwriter John Logan, whose credits include Gladiator and Skyfall, it was a piece of horror television unusual for the genre with its high profile when it premiered in 2014. The hype did not last for long but it held onto its small devoted audience who were caught by surprise by its definite ending at the close of its third season.


Nearly five years later Logan returns with a spin off relocating the action to 1930’s Los Angeles. Aside from the title and returning cast member Rory Kinnear, playing an entirely new character here, there is absolutely nothing that ties this new series to the original. Gone is the atmospheric dark London setting, replaced with the ever-present sun blasted city scape familiar from so many golden age Hollywood movies. Where before we were treated to a tale of supernatural good vs evil, we now have a tale of a possible demigod who seems overly interested in building a freeway.


It begins promisingly enough with Natalie Dormer as a thinly sketched spiritual being named Magda delivering a portentous voiceover about turning man against man and race against race. We then skip ahead years later to the discovery of a gruesome murder being investigated by the LAPD’s first Mexican-American detective Santiago Vega. The investigation soon leads Vega and his partner Lewis, Nathan Lane struggling to come across as a hard boiled cop, down many avenues that lead to a female preacher, Nazis, corrupt closeted politicians, Santa Muerte and elaborate dance scenes all whilst Magda shifts her identity trying to get construction plans for a motorway through city hall and incite a race war.


Why Magda wants to do so is never explained. Santa Muerte, a spirit of the dead, is shown at the beginning as being in opposition to Magda but is also never given a reason why she should care and then only pops up randomly to look annoyed or concerned when someone dies. This lack of stakes spreads across the rest of the story lines all of which remain unfocused and underdeveloped to the very end. This horror/crime saga never commits properly to either genre, instead cancelling itself out on both fronts when it stumbles from storyline to storyline. If it were not for Magda’s presence this would only be a pale imitation of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and CHINATOWN. The plot ine of racist cops running unchecked is indeed timely but this seems entirely coincidental and not due to any serious concern of Logan and his writers’ room. The issue is skimmed over, only to provide a source of villainy alongside the Nazis who provide a type of authenticity with their German accents that has not been heard since ‘ALLO ‘ALLO!


A sense of vagueness runs throughout the ten hours the series takes to get to the conclusion of the central mystery that it seems to have been forgotten about by the writers. The reveal is dealt with in such a blasé fashion that it seems little more of an afterthought. It pulls into focus the sense of ineptness in the storytelling that is quite surprising when compared to the rest of Logan’s filmography.


John Paesano’s lush musical score is nicely reminiscent of the film noir’s that no doubt inspired this and the period detail provides a stylish look for the series but these highlights would be better served by a sharper focus on the historical injustice angle. Coincidentally PERRY MASON, which can also be found on Sky Atlantic at this time, also focuses on a 1930’s Los Angeles populated with female radio preachers, racist police involved in systemic racism and a truly horrific murder in a much more satisfying manner. That such a series, spinning off from a lawyer procedural series over sixty years old, contains more horror than PENNY DREADFUL: CITY OF ANGELS shows how much the ball has been dropped here. By the end of this first season where Magda threatens to deliver the exact same thing she promised at the beginning, the threat of a second season feels like more of an unwanted chore than anything else.


Iain MacLeod.


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