Dead on Arrival (A Spoiler-Free Review of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels)

Netflix’s viewer data famously indicates that it takes an average of three episodes to become hooked on a new series. Having now watched four episodes of Sky/Showtime’s Penny Dreadful: City of Angels I can safely say that, for me, John Logan’s newest series is dead on arrival.

It makes a lovely corpse. Each episode is full of rich colours, stunning period costumes, and lushly-laden sets. Even Sister Molly’s all-white boudoir oozes atmosphere and high production values. Acting ranges from solid to superb throughout the start of the series—unsurprising given the star-studded cast. We’re even treated to the occasional musical interlude or dance number.

One key issue with City of Angels is that it attempts to tell AND show. There is a great deal of exposition about the show’s setting and the characters’ backstories and philosophies, which often comes across as awkward and artificial. Juxtaposed with these cold and calculated deliveries, however, the show also aims to make its viewers revel in the physical after-effects of said backstories and philosophies. Episode 4, with its theme of ghosts and haunting, encapsulates this problem particularly well. Our heroes (and villains) are haunted, broken, and we are witness to their most private and agonising moments. Not in service of the plot or the world-building: that has already been delivered to us through exposition. Instead, it is simply in the service of spectacle.

Perhaps this is an issue of timing. There is enough going on around us that I was looking for something a bit more fun and uplifting. More importantly, though, I think City of Angels takes itself a little too seriously for its own good. Paradoxically, then, City of Angels also has a tendency to switch gears abruptly between the silly and the horrific, imparting an additional kind of violence onto the horrific scenes. We are unsure whether we should laugh or cry, and the show rarely takes the side of its heroes. This was an issue that the final season of the original Penny Dreadful had as well.

A lot will depend on where Tiago’s storyline goes, though I am not too hopeful on this point. The show tries to do too much with too little, and ends up failing on all fronts as a result. As Kristen Lopez of IndieWire writes:

Nearly every plotline, from the 1930s setting to Nazis hiding in plain sight, has been done before and better. At times, the series feels like a retread of “L.A. Confidential” with its one unique element, that of Tiago’s quest for respect in the LAPD, being smothered by several other ideas. Had the series pared down its plotlines the characters could shine more, their motivations crystallize, instead of feeling like they’re 20 characters in search of an exit.

In addition to (or perhaps building on) these issues of spectacle, register, and overplotting, City of Angels strikes an odd tone. I’m not sure I’d call it Gothic, as it honestly feels like more of an Epic, or perhaps just a melodrama. The supernatural plays a much bigger role here than it did in the old Penny Dreadful, which did feature ‘real’ monsters towards the end of the series, but was always much more ambiguous and spiritual, rather that physical, in its construction of horror.

In some ways, then, City of Angels is quite different from its Victorian-era predecessor, though both shows seem to have a lot of the same problems—most notably with Whiteness. As Lopez notes, “it’s hard to see [Natalie Dormer] as an Italian outcast leading a Pachuco gang of kids. The embodiment veers into cultural appropriation before skewing toward the ‘all outcasts face the same oppression’ mentality the series wants to focus on.” City of Angels introduces the same ‘everything is moral shades of grey’ line as the original Penny Dreadful, but its characters are caricatures (archetypes if I’m being generous) in a way that makes this a hard sell.

Natalie Dormer as Rio in PENNY DREADFUL: CITY OF ANGELS, “Day of the Dead”. Photo Credit: Warrick Page/SHOWTIME.

As this review probably makes clear, City of Angels also suffers, perhaps unfairly, from its comparison with the first Penny Dreadful. But it is also difficult to avoid comparing them—both because of their branding as part of the same universe, but also because in terms of concept and philosophy they are so very similar. Tony Sokol from Den of Geek writes that in the case of the show’s two detective protagonists, Nathan ‘Lane is a dramatic Lou Costello to [Daniel] Zovatto’s Bud Abbott’. Given that the show is indeed set in 1930s LA, I was constantly hoping that the Universal Monsters, or at the very least Universal Horror, would get a nod at some point. But Logan seems set on separating City of Angels from any discussion of historical monsters, literary or cinematic—to the show’s detriment. Only ‘serious’ monsters are allowed: appropriations from Mexican legend, or melodramatic versions of historical villains like the Nazis. Sadly there are already many other works of horror that are more interesting in this regard.

If you have any thoughts about Penny Dreadful: City of Angels I would love to hear them! Please leave a comment here or send me a Tweet.

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