Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (first impressions)

I’ve been watching Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, a new Showtime series in the horror/dark fantasy genre.

In pre-WWII Los Angeles, much is going on: The LAPD is finding mutilated bodies in the dry concrete basin of the Los Angeles River. Dark entities from Mexican folklore are causing mayhem. Corrupt city officials and law enforcement officers are waging war against LA’s chicano population. The chicano population is waging war back, led by zoot-suited gangsters.

And (of course) the Nazis are maneuvering in the background, doing the sorts of violent and underhanded things that Nazis always do. But they have to compete with out-of-town gangsters. (This is the golden age of the mafia, after all.)

I noticed that this show has very mixed viewer ratings. It’s rated 6.1/10 on IMDb, and 76% favorable on Google. This would give it a grade of “C”. 


Overall, I like the show. This series has a fast-moving plot, with lots of twists and turns. Something is always happening.

Despite the fantastical nature of the plot (and it is fantastical), the show’s creators did a good job of reproducing the Los Angeles in 1938.

No—I’m not quite that old; but I do know some history. I’ve only caught a few anachronisms in City of Angels, and they really aren’t worth noting here. (Most viewers will miss them.)

The acting and casting are well done. Natalie Dormer (whom I had previously known as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors) shows real talent as Magda, the shapeshifting demon who assumes multiple roles in the show. Dormer simultaneously plays Magda’s half-dozen or so aliases, which are all very different. Dormer gives each one a distinctive flavor (including, in one case,  a very convincing German accent) so that there’s no overlap.

Daniel Zovatto, meanwhile, is strong in the role of Tiago Vega, a Mexican American LAPD detective who is torn between his chicano family and his LAPD family.

Is there anything wrong with this show (to explain the “C” view rating)? Well, here are a few ideas:

This is a very dark show. With the exception of Tiago Vega, this show doesn’t have many heroes. Most characters are either villains, or morally ambiguous.  It’s tough to know whom we’re supposed to be rooting for. And even though Vega is technically the hero of the show, his actions sometimes seem morally ambiguous and unfocused, too.


This is a very violent show. I sat through the original Halloween and Friday 13th movies, as well as The Evil Dead.  I’ve seen violence and gore onscreen before. I’m not squeamish. Nevertheless, even I found myself averting my eyes in one scene, in which a chicano character gruesomely slashes the throat of a corrupt LAPD street cop.

The violence in City of Angels is more or less constant, offset by very little in the way of human kindness or charity. The show’s creators were obviously aiming for a “noir” atmosphere; and they achieved it in spades. A few scenes depict violence toward children (or its aftermath). This may upset some viewers.


There might be too many storylines. While the plot is fast-moving and constantly turning, it is also a plot with a lot of threads. And I do mean a lot. I counted at least ten. The action shifts rapidly between the chicano gangsters, Los Angeles politics, the supernatural, the mafia, the Nazis, and a slew of other plot lines that I haven’t mentioned here.

Some viewers might find this many stories overwhelming, and unsure of what kind of show they’re actually watching. 


Is Penny Dreadful: City of Angels a dark fantasy series that flirts with outright horror? Is it a noir crime drama? A conspiracy thriller about the Nazis? Or is it a gritty portrait of ethnic tensions in early 20th-century Los Angeles?

It’s all of these, actually—and more. Some viewers will find all of this variety to be a feature. Others, a bug.

For now, I’m sticking with this show. I don’t know quite what to make of it, but it is holding my interest. So long as that continues, I’ll probably keep watching.