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‘Penny Dreadful: City of Angels’: Beautiful Showtime spinoff jumps from noir to supernatural

Set in the late 1930s, the grisly series tackles such perennial issues as racism and the influence of hypocritical evangelicals.

The LAPD’s first Mexican-American detective (Daniel Zovatto, left) is paired with a department veteran (Nathan Lane) on “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.”
Showtime

There’s something rotten in the city of Los Angeles in 1938.

The eviscerated bodies of a Beverly Hills family of four, their faces carved into Day of the Dead masks, have been found in the concrete basin of the Los Angeles River. Scrawled on a nearby wall is a message in Spanish that translates to: “You take our heart, we take yours.” Meanwhile, a race war is brewing over a planned super-motorway highway connecting downtown to Pasadena that will cut through Latino neighborhoods. Also, a German-American group hoisting Nazi flags is holding marches and rallies, urging the U.S. to leave Germany to Hitler and concentrate on keeping America great.

Oh, and there’s a chaos-creating demon and an unrelenting angel of death lurking in the supernatural dark alleys of the city.

“Penny Dreadful: City of Angels” (premiering at 9:10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime) is a new entrant in the British-American horror series named after the cheap and sensational illustrated publications of the 19th century — but it’s an almost entirely self-contained spinoff, not a sequel, set nearly a half-century after the events of the original. And though “City of Angels” is set in the late 1930s, showrunner John Logan (writer of films such as “Gladiator” and “The Aviator”) has fashioned storylines with clear parallels to 21st century America, from racial tensions to the influence of hypocritical evangelicals to the poisonous presence of racist hate groups loudly proclaiming their supremacy.

Not that “City of Angels” is a social lecture. It’s primarily a grisly, chilling, impressively filmed show with beautiful production design, great special effects and strong performances from the cast, led by Daniel Zovatto as Tiago Vega, the LAPD’s first Mexican-American detective; Nathan Lane as Lewis Michener, Tiago’s venerable partner; Natalie Dormer as Magda, a shape-shifting supernatural demon; Lorenza Izzo as Santa Muerte; Rory Kinnear as Peter Craft, a German doctor and the leader of the German-American Bund, and Adrianna Barraza as Maria, the matriarch of the Vega family, who believes she is a witch (and there’s evidence to support that).

At times “City of Angels” is a hard-boiled noir detective story, as Vega and Michener investigate the brutal murders of that Beverly Hills family and uncover a termite’s nest of corruption and immorality infesting Los Angeles, even as Vega has to endure institutional racism inside and outside the department and Michener is rocked by the murders of two of his closest colleagues. The body count continues to pile up; extramarital affairs and secret lives are uncovered. At one point, Michener says he’s had the worst week of his life and notes, “When a Jew says that, believe me it means f------ something.”

In jarring fashion, the tone will then shift gears to a supernatural thriller, with Dormer’s Magda literally setting things on fire and smashing windows just by walking, and working her evil on humans by whispering into their ears and causing them to commit heinous deeds. Then there’s Izzo’s holy angel of death, who wears a really fabulous and elaborate getup and has goth makeup, and is exhausted, if holy angels of death can be exhausted, by the very nature of her existence, which is to transport the dead to the next life. That’s a tough gig, with no days off.

Natalie Dormer plays a demon who shape-shifts into three “human” alter egos in “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.”
Showtime

It’s great seeing Nathan Lane playing such a no-nonsense, world-weary, tough-guy character. Natalie Dormer also shines in a four-part role, as Magda and her three “human” alter egos: a battered wife and mother who is a German refugee; the bisexual leader of a Chicano gang, and the bespectacled, seemingly timid assistant to a venal city councilman. Kerry Bishe turns in layered work as “Sister Molly,” a singing radio evangelist with a squeaky-clean image and a lurid private life.

There’s a LOT going on in each episode of “City of Angels,” and some storylines aren’t as compelling as others. Still, this is an appropriately terrifying next chapter in the “Penny Dreadful” series.