Billed as “a spiritual descendent” of the original Penny Dreadful series which ran from 2014-2016, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels Season 1 Episode 1 introduces a supernatural pantheon of beings in a hauntingly familiar context, pre-WWII America.
This being the series premiere — and me being a huge fan of the original series — it’s hard not to spend a lot of time comparing the two.
Like its predecessor, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels boasts an impressive cast, lush cinematography, and an ambitious narrative.
However, where the original played on the well-known characters of classic gothic and horror literature — Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, the Wolf-Man — this new incarnation is building somethng novel and more complex around the figure of Santa Muerte, the Angel of Holy Death.
Tiago: Santa Muerte is the Angel of Holy Death. She’s the one who brings dead people to Heaven.
Lewis: Oh, she’s the one who does that.
Furthermore, where Vanessa Ives and Malcolm Murray traipsed about a fictional London which could have existed at any time in the 19th century, Tiago Vega and Dr. Craft are co-existing very specifically in Los Angeles in 1938, a year before a Hitler-led Germany invades Poland.
Drawing focus from the title deity and, honestly, from every other character on screen is the indomitable Natalie Dormer, playing a shape-shifting, devilish being credited as “Magda” although she has yet to be named out loud.
We know that she and Santa Muerte address each other as “sister” and that she has the ability to cause catastrophes and incite people towards their worst instincts.
All Mankind needs to be the monster he truly is is being told he can.
She promises to destroy humanity by letting them destroy themselves — not that she’s an idle observer by any means.
She interacts with people on a regular basis, appearing as a pitiable and enticing young mother to Dr. Craft and then on Councilman Townsend’s staff as the efficient and supportive Alex.
In contrast, Santa Muerte is almost painfully detached from humanity, speaking to Maria of the dark and evil times foretold but seemingly uninterested in how that may affect the living.
In fact, the only two times we see her react with emotion is when she warns Magda to leave young Tiago alone in the fields where his father dies, and then when Maria refers to Magda as her “bitch sister” which, admittedly, is going to a bit far when talking to anyone.
The core of the narrative here is the Vega family with Tiago as the central protagonist, marked by Santa Muerte’s hand, the first Mexican-American (aka “chicano”) police detective on the LAPD, a man doomed to trying to do the right thing.
Tom: If we join the club, we get a badge.
Trevor: The Green Hornet gave us a ring.
Peter: Why do you want a badge?
Tom: Dad, everyone wants a badge.
There’s a bit of a Weasley family vibe with the powerful matriarch, Maria, and the youngest child being the only girl, Josefina.
Where the original Penny Dreadful ensemble members were supernatural misfits rejected by their biological families, here we have a real family with strong bonds even when they disagree.
Little brother Mateo is ready to pulverize anyone making the moves on his sister, a good intention Josefina does not care for.
Big brother Raul toasts Tiago’s promotion even if he has no love for police.
Golden son Tiago goes to his mother for advice and intel even though he has no faith in Santa Muerte himself.
They are true family, and I have the sense that their victory over the rising evil will be dependent on them remembering that.
Family-adjacent is where we find Lewis Michener, Tiago’s grizzled, sarcastic, good-hearted, secretly-Nazi-hunting partner, played by Nathan Lane as I’ve never seen him before.
Yeah, it’s the secret Nazi hunting thing that really has me excited about seeing where his story leads.
Because there are Nazis around. So many Nazis.
There are Bad Nazis like the almost cartoonishly evil Richard Goss.
There are Nazi wannabees like Councilman Townsend, whose every scene is so incredibly cringe-worthy, it’s a credit to Michael Gladis, whose ability to ooze smarminess should be classed an assault weapon.
Alex: You did magnificently today. You were a strong man.
Townsend: Hitler, even. Now there’s a fellow who understands the judicious exercise of power.
And then there’s the weirdly likable Nazi, Dr. Peter Craft, played by the lone returning alumni of the first series, Rory Kinnear.
Setting aside the thick accent, which I’m sure is just meant to set him apart as an outsider to Los Angeles and America but plays like a Bond villain, Craft is a good father, a caring husband, and a considerate employer.
Magda’s encounter with him as Elsa seems rather petty in comparison to the power she indirectly wields as Alex, the power behind Townsend. How will canoodling with a doctor speed the destruction she’s looking to ignite?
And then there’s the murder and the riot and the new motorway. And a Christian evangelist is somehow involved too?
This was a premiere packed to the gills with conflicts and personalities, dread and anticipation.
Also, did anyone else squeal when Star Trek’s Lt. Commander Data turned out to be Tiago’s boss?
Premieres are tricky creatures when used to predict a series, but so far, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels is pulling hard on the themes of family, faith, and fear.
When you watch Penny Dreadful: City of Angels online, notice how the opening scene had Magda and Santa Muerte facing each other in the fields just before Tiago’s father (and many others) were burned alive and the final scene had them approaching each other just after Tiago was forced to shoot down Raul.
That, my friends, is some hot shot visual bookending.
What are your main takeaways from this premiere?
Are you intrigued enough to stick around?
What is Magda’s game? What about Santa Muerte’s?
How badly do you want to see Michener kick Townsend with some “judicious exercise of power” cleats?
Diana Keng is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.