Roush Review: Atmospheric 'Penny Dreadful' Tackles Los Angeles Noir

Matt Roush
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels
Review Justin Lubin/Showtime

Where are the monsters, you might wonder, if you come to the new incarnation of this atmospheric occult series expecting more of the Victorian Grand Guignol of Penny Dreadful's intoxicating first three seasons. I loved creator John Logan's literate mashup of the Frankenstein myth with vampires, werewolves and Dr. Jekyll, but in his City of Angels spinoff, he's moved on to the Hollywood genre of 1930s film noir.

The ghouls in this dark fable are all too human, including corrupt politicians, racist cops and a clandestine cabal of dapper Nazis who see the growing metropolis of Los Angeles as "the future of America." True, there is a demonic goddess named Magda (Game of Thrones' Natalie Dormer, having a ball in multiple seductive roles), who takes on various guises as she mischievously goads pathetic human puppets to do her malicious bidding and start a race war.

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Magda — first seen in a field of migrant workers facing off against the Mexican religious icon of Santa Muerte, the Angel of Holy Death (Lorenza Izzo) — predicts a time "when nation will battle nation, when race will devour race, when brother will kill brother until not a soul is left.… All it will take is one final spark."

The catalyst to conflagration arrives early on, with the grisly discovery of a rich white family murdered and adorned with Day of the Dead symbols. Suspicion falls on L.A.'s oppressed Mexican-American community, already agitated by a controversial freeway project that threatens the barrio they call home. This case is especially complicated for Tiago Vega (a handsomely brooding Daniel Zovatto), the first Chicano to be promoted to detective in the LAPD, whose rank and file taunt him with racial slurs.

Penny Dreadful: City of angels Natalie Dormer

(Credit: Justin Lubin/SHOWTIME)

Torn between duty and family heritage, Tiago is paired with jaded Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane, pugnacious and wonderfully wry), who as a Jew also knows what it is to be an outsider. The impending Nazi threat distracts Lewis in a subplot reminiscent of Prime Video's Hunters, while Tiago becomes entwined with a beautiful radio evangelist (Kerry Bishé), whose temple is connected to the case.

This sprawling canvas, with its Chinatown vibes, violent ethnic conflicts and snarling cartoon villains, hardly needs Magda and her doppelgängers' obvious supernatural tricks to muddy the waters. I might have preferred City of Angels to evoke the Universal horror movies of the era, except Logan went that route already.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, Series Premiere, Sunday, April 26, 10/9c, Showtime