Penny Dreadful: City of Angels Trailer Thoughts

As I continue my efforts at middle-form blogging, I’m also going to unearth some critical writing from another source — correspondence with a friend of mine. I wound up writing at length about Penny Dreadful at some point, so I went back and unearthed it for this quick blog about the just-released trailer for the comeback series, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels. 

First, let’s raise a toast to the original series, which was a delicious idea handsomely rendered. Of course we’re all aware  of the resemblance it bears to Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I feel like it’s the good film version of that comic we never got, with balls and bite. (In the original comic, for example, Alan Quatermain is an opium addict, but that nuance quickly got scrubbed away when Connery came on board for the movie.) Penny Dreadful retains a lot of the R-rated spice that was in Moore’s comic, and if you’re asking me, I far, far prefer John Logan (he of Any Given Sunday fame) over Moore to tell this kind of story. 

They also found a lot of good parts for the right actors. Timothy Dalton is one of those perennially underrated and underused talents, and tapping him to play a crusty old Alan Quatermain/Indiana Jones in mourning was a great call. They also found a good part for lanky ol’ John Hartnett. Hartnett’s skill set is pretty limited, but tasking him to play a cowboy in exile is a good use of him. The other cast is also solid – Harry Treadaway (Frankenstein) and Rory Kinnear (the Creature) are maybe my favorites. (Bummer they whacked Dr. Van Helsing so quickly, though. David Warner’s awesome in general, and Van Helsing seems like such an irresistible literary creation. Teaming him up with Frankenstein seemed like it could’ve borne more fruit.)

On the downside, the show lacks scope and a sense of forward momentum, and I think both are a product of its limited budget. It’s got the same quaint “parlor show” vibe that the Francis Coppola Dracula has, where you never for a moment feel like they’re shooting on anything but lovingly-built sets and soundstages. Okay, I’m being harsh – I’m pretty sure there are a few exterior shots – but for the vast majority of the time, the show feels claustrophobic and theatrical. I’m sure part of that is by design – its central set-piece is a theater, after all – but it makes it seem like the characters never go anywhere literally/physically as well as psychologically to some extent. The season one finale in particular was a letdown. It seemed like such a natural progression that they’d take the fight to Transylvania to hunt Dracula – echoing the climax of the novel – but then all of the bad guys came right to their doorstep at the Grand Guignol theater. Again, I’m sure that was for budgetary reasons. “Hey, we’ve got this awesome set. Let’s use it for something!”

There were also big stretches of the season where I asked myself, “Wait, what do these people want?” There were a zillion scenes where they cut to Timothy Dalton mooning about his study/library, and I thought, “How much new information can he uncover about his missing daughter in his own home?”

Jumping ahead to the new trailer — hoo boy, am I excited. I’ve been an “Angeleno” for twenty years now, and while I doubt I’ll ever feel like a native, I love my adopted home. The city, steeped in history, boasts a fine literary pedigree, from James Ellroy to Charles Bukowski. Drawing on the famed/infamous Black Dahlia case seems like a great way to usher us back into this world, as does the inclusion of Mexican-American folklore. 

The cast also looks top-notch, from old pro Nathan Lane to personal favorites of mine Kerry Bishé (Halt and Catch Fire) and Thomas Kretchmann, who starred in the impressively bizarre 2004 comic-book adaptation Immortal, which depicted the return of the Egyptian pantheon to earth. (Also: Brent Spiner!)

Here’s Showtime’s official description:

1938 Los Angeles; a time and place deeply infused with social and political tension. When a grisly murder shocks the city, Detective Tiago Vega (Zovatto) is embroiled in an epic story that reflects the rich history of Los Angeles: from the building of the city’s first freeways and its deep traditions of Mexican-American folklore, to the dangerous espionage actions of the Third Reich and the rise of radio evangelism. Before long, Tiago and his family are grappling with powerful forces that threaten to tear them apart.

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