Simmering racial tensions and a brutal quadruple murder—not to mention a supernatural conflict between a demon and a saint—are making life very interesting for a newly minted Latino LAPD officer in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels. It's Showtime's spinoff series of its award-winning, critically acclaimed series, Penny Dreadful, which ended its run in 2016 after three seasons.
Created by John Logan, the original Penny Dreadful took its name from the lurid and sensational popular 19th-century British novels known as "penny dreadfuls." Sweeney Todd, aka "the Demon Barber of Fleet Street," highwayman Dick Turpin, and Varney the Vampire were among the notable fictional characters who first appeared in these cheap periodicals.
Logan drew heavily on more literary figures from that era for his main plots and characters: Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, primarily. While the first season occasionally took the macabre horror to ridiculous heights, the show soon found its tonal footing, and the second and third seasons earned widespread critical raves, racking up numerous Emmy nominations and several BAFTA awards.
(Some mild spoilers below, but no major reveals.)
City of Angels takes place nearly 40 years after the original series, in 1938, and as such trades in the gothic horror of its predecessor for a more Chandler-esque film noir aesthetic, infused with traditional Mexican-American folklore. This period coincides with the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood. But Los Angeles was also a cauldron of simmering racial tensions between white residents and the local Mexican-American population, augmented by an influx of German immigrants just as Adolf Hitler's Third Reich was reaching the apex of its power.
This is the broader canvas on which a shape-shifting supernatural demon, Magda (Natalie Dormer), conspires to bring out the worst in humanity and ensure their self-destruction. Magda's "sister," Santa Muerte (the saint of death in Mexican-American folklore), played by Lorenza Izzo, also plays a central role, since it is she who welcomes human souls to the afterlife upon their death.
"You take our heart, we take yours."
There's a lot going on in the first two episodes we screened. Our main human protagonist is Santiago "Tiago" Vega (Daniel Zovatto), who has a brush with Santa Muerte as a child on the day his father and many other migrant workers died in a tragic fire (caused by Magda, of course) in the opening scene. Fast forward to Tiago as an adult, as he becomes the first Mexican-American detective at the LAPD. And his first case with partner Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane) is a doozy: a brutal quadruple murder, in which the corpses have had their hearts removed and are ritualistically painted in Day of the Dead fashion. Written in blood nearby is a chilling message in Spanish: "You take our heart, we take yours."
This is interpreted by the detectives as a reference to the city's planned razing of a revered church in the Latino community of Belvedere Heights to make way for what will one day become the 110 freeway. The residents are furious, and Tiago's brother, Raul (Adam Rodriguez), is among the leaders of an uprising against the planned destruction after the community's petition to the LA City Council Transportation Committee to stay the project is denied.