“CITY OF ANGELS” TAKES FLIGHT TO DARK SIDE OF HISTORY
A TV Review by Tim Riley
“PENNY DREADFUL: CITY OF ANGELS” ON SHOWTIME
Los Angeles, nicknamed the City of Angels but not for the California baseball team, has a fascinating history that has been popularized over time in film noir and seminal works like “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential,” two period pieces that leap to mind. Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels” is set in 1938 Los Angeles, at a time of racial strife, rising evangelism, a public works project running roughshod over an immigrant community, and the Third Reich seeking a foothold on American soil.
As if the pre-World War II period is not intriguing enough, show creator John Logan introduces a supernatural element with Natalie Dormer’s demon Magda who busies herself stirring up tension and turmoil that percolates throughout Los Angeles.
Dressed in black, Magda makes her first appearance in a prologue by appearing in fields where migrant workers toil on harvesting crops, causing a tragic fire that claims the lives of many, including the father of a young boy who witnesses the carnage. A counter-balance to the evil Magda, who also inhabits the human roles of a German immigrant housewife, a political aide and a leader in the Pachuco counter culture, is Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo), the Mexican folk saint associated with delivering the dead to the afterlife.
Fast forward to 1938, the young boy in the fields is now the adult Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto), who lives with his mother Maria (Adriana Barraza) and his siblings in the Latino community of Belvedere Heights, soon to be the flashpoint for a battle over urban renewal.A reluctant trailblazer, Tiago becomes the first Mexican-American detective at the LAPD where he’s in conflict with fellow racist officers as much as he is with his own community that views him as some sort of sellout.
No one else wants to partner with Tiago other than veteran detective Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane), a Jew who has his own struggle with the rising tide of anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head in the presence of Nazi sympathizers openly holding rallies in public parks. The first case for Tiago and Lewis is a crime scene in the cement basin of the Los Angeles River, where a family of four from wealthy Beverly Hills is found dead, their bodies heavily mutilated with a Day of the Dead motif.
Nearby on the channel wall, the detectives find an ominous message in Spanish that translates to “You take our heart, we take yours.” Indeed, the corpses have had their hearts removed in a ritualistic fashion that forebodes a looming racial skirmish. Los Angeles City Councilman Charlton Townsend (Michael Gladis) is pushing his weight around in a committee meeting to thrust the development of the Arroyo Seco freeway that will run right through the middle of Belvedere Heights, displacing scores of its inhabitants.
The residents show up in force at a council hearing and Tiago’s brother Raul (Adam Rodriguez) is in the forefront of fierce opposition to the freeway, presaging the inevitable unease that will cause a huge rift in the Vega household.
The shape-shifting Magda appears as the compliant Alex, a dowdy advisor to Councilman Townsend who manipulates her boss into compromising positions which seem almost certain at some point to further the aims of local Nazis to gain influence at City Hall.Townsend’s unwavering commitment to the freeway, even in the face of a threat from a veteran councilwoman for a pitched political battle, eventually leads to a violent confrontation at the roadway’s construction site, leading to the death of cops and civilian protestors.
Of course, the unseen hand of Magda is behind the violence, as her only aim is to sow chaos and foment distrust between the whites and immigrants, which might open up a receptive audience for the Third Reich’s inroads into local government.While Lewis starts working solo to investigate the murder of Jewish friends who had been spying on the Nazis, Tiago gets involved with radio evangelist Sister Molly (Kerry Bishe), an alluring temptress who chafes at the control exercised by her mother (Amy Madigan). Another character for the devious Magda is that of young German-born housewife Elsa who frequently visits the office of pediatrician Peter Craft (Rory Kinnear), another expatriate with a troubled marriage to the alcoholic Linda (Piper Perabo).
Not concealing his affinity for Nazi Germany, Dr. Craft is the leader of the German-American Bund, a group that seeks to exploit the isolationist views of a public wary of entanglement in another costly war on foreign soil. “City of Angels” may suffer from too many storylines, though each one holds its own fascination for the fate of every character even as the chameleon-like Magda juggles so much conniving guiles that are irresistible. A key facet to this limited series is the aesthetic rendering of Los Angeles of the late Thirties that is amazing in its authentic details. For the atmosphere alone, “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels” draws one into an experience that is worth watching.