Sky series “penny dreadful”: nice nazis

With the spin-off "City of Angels," the series enters a new incarnation. The plot and characters don’t always do justice to the subject.

Natalie Dormer as the demon Magda Photo: showtime

John Logan could hardly have foreseen the escalating protests that are dominating the news from the U.S. these days. Unless the series creator had supernatural powers like some of the characters in his "Penny Dreadful" universe. He has now given the series, which ended after three seasons, a spin-off. "Penny Dreadful: City of Angels" is no longer set in London, but in Los Angeles, almost half a century later.

In 1938, the homes of Mexican migrants are to make way for a highway, and bulldozers are on the doorstep. And the street battle between the humiliated People of Color and the white police officers, marked by a racist esprit de corps: it’s hard to watch without short-circuiting it with current news.

Now "Penny Dreadful" is a serial product of the horror genre. The fictionalization of a very serious historical topic – the Holocaust – which tends too much in the direction of pulp and kintopp was recently beaten around the ears by the Amazon series "Hunters." Logan doesn’t go so far as to stage concentration camp inmates as living chess pieces in "City of Angels". And even if it should be okay to use even such difficult topoi connected with real suffering for wantonly (nobly) trashy genre merchandise – it would be all too Beckmesserish to ask: What’s the point of it all?

In "City of Angels", a bygone era is reconstructed with enormous effort, down to every wonderful detail. There, the example of an ambitious city councilman (Michael Gladis), who pushes the highway project, is used to exemplify how demagogy works. Only to see how an evil demon (Natalie Dormer) manipulates him just as she does the policeman who fires the first shot in the street battle. What is John Logan trying to tell us with this? Doesn’t he see that he is putting the responsibility of the demagogues and shooters into perspective?

"Penny Dreadful: City of Angels," 10 episodes, starting June 8, 2020, Sky.

The demoness sometimes appears invisibly – to the series staff – in black leather gear, then in various undercover disguises: as the secretary of that city councilman; as a vamp appealing to the protective instincts of a terribly nice doctor (Rory Kinnear) with a German accent that is just as phony as the doctor’s, who turns out to be a German-American Nazi and isolationist ("America first").

The only thing that’s real is the accent of Thomas Kretschmann, who plays a neater, cooler Nazi here than he did just recently in "Das Boot". The Nazis in the City of Angels are either terribly nice or insanely cool. They’re being hunted by a small group of Jewish seniors, their leader (Nathan Lane) both a cop and partner of the first "Chicano detective" (Daniel Zovatto) in the L.A. Police Department, who as such is caught between all fronts.

In the bar, the two, who also have to solve a nasty ritual murder of an entire family, order Gimlet, Philip Marlowe’s favorite cocktail. For all its horror, L. is not least the capital of film noir – and Polanski’s "Chinatown" is only one of numerous precursors from which Logan has mixed together his sprawling mash-up. In which racism is only one of (too) many motifs.