The original Penny Dreadful, named after the lurid shock novels popular in Ripper-era London and which aired from 2014 to 2016 on Showtime, drew blood from what was already well-trodden ground for horror: the ghoulish, dark streets of Victorian London. Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, the 10-part spin-off billed as its “spiritual descendant”, instead transports us to sunbaked, rangy Los Angeles, 1938. But, as it turns out, evil doesn’t lurk just within shadows, for City of Angels shares with the original a belief in humans as the most horrific monster of all. Or, as the leather-clad demoness Magda (Natalie Dormer) tells her sister, death-angel Santa Muerte (Lorena Izzo), in the first show’s first scene (their intro is as sudden and unsubtle as mine here): “All mankind needs to be the monster he truly is, is being told he can.”

Magda, demon puppeteer of the series, gets a literal fiery entrance, starting a blaze that almost kills a young Tiago Vega, who survives with help from Santa Muerte. But the show, created and written, like the original, by John Logan (Skyfall, The Aviator), cedes most of its action to the mortals in 1938 – LA’s so-called Golden Age, though there are no starlets to be found here. This is the ascendant LA of oil wells and parched mom-and-pop streets, working-class dance halls and a strong Chicano presence. The adult Tiago (Daniel Zovatto), the first Mexican American detective in a racist cesspool Los Angeles police department, partners with Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane), a sardonic Jew sympathetic to Tiago’s outsider status. The two are tasked with a grisly crime: a family murdered and left naked, hearts ripped out and faces painted Day of the Dead-style, in a dried-up riverbed. (City of Angels is considerably less macabre than its forebear, but has its fair share of gore.)

From here, weighty plots ooze in several disparate, loosely connected directions anchored by historical research (and, in disguise, Magda’s demonic nudging). Tiago and Lewis’s investigation leads to Tiago’s mother Maria (a standout Adriana Barraza), an ardent believer in Mexican folklore, and to the radio church of Sister Molly Finnister (Kerry Bishé), which switches Tiago into romantic lead mode, and her ruthlessly controlling mother Adelaide (Amy Madigan). Meanwhile, riots between Chicano residents and hostile law enforcement over police brutality and stifled opportunity offer Tiago’s brothers Raúl (Adam Rodriguez) and Mateo (Jonathan Nieves) subplots in resistance groups (the union for Raúl, a pachuco gang for Manuel) and echo the city’s so-called Zoot Suit riots in 1943.

Over the first three episodes, Penny Dreadful plunges into its immersive world and hovers, scouring the city’s moral underground (which, it understands, can be as much the institutional as the criminal), slowly overturning pebbles with calls to the present. Over here, Dr Peter Craft (Rory Kinnear, the one holdover from the original), a German Nazi working as a pediatrician, spouts “America First” white nationalism in a city park. Over there, Tiago’s sister Josefina (Jessica Garza) silently bears the brunt of neighborhood police terrorism. City councilman Charlton Townsend (Michael Gladis), seeking to bulldoze Chicano neighborhoods for a highway to Pasadena, is approached to collaborate with Nazi insurgents to facilitate fascism in the US.

Most of the performances, particularly from veterans like Lane, are solid, but the heavy lift here is done by Dormer, who plays not one but four avatars of Magda: Alex, a homely assistant to Townsend; Elsa, a mysterious if slightly cartoonish German emigre who lures Dr Kraft with her tale as a battered wife with a strange, asthmatic son; and Rio, a maroon-haired, flamboyant leader of a Mexican American gang. As Anne Boleyn in The Tudors and Thrones’s Margaery Tyrell, Dormer is no stranger to beguiling subterfuge, and she’s queen of the subtle smirk; save a few overflowing monologues, she strikes the right balance of camp and restraint here for a Hydra of a character whose only motivation seems to be, at least in the six episodes available for review, chaos alone.

If you’re already dropping threads of this plot, well, join the club – the bold and disparate strands of this series (Nazis! Footloose-style dance sequence! Jewish gangsters!) are individually compelling, but the show strains under the weight of its own webbing. Which makes for some confusion (and intrigue – seriously, are they ever going solve this murder?) but a no less enjoyable experience; like an old wooden rollercoaster, the kind found on Tiago’s trip to the Santa Monica pier, the bumpiness is part of the ride’s appeal. I found myself, despite whiplash from the laundry list of characters, immediately diving into the next episode; the show’s well-constructed, trenchant escapism can be aggressive, but it is magnetic.

This is in no small part due to the series’s smart handling of its smaller moments – the tentative bond between Lewis and Tiago, Maria’s formidable support for each of her sons. These bonds are organic and mellowing, a balm even as the malignant supernatural forces remain frustratingly opaque. Over halfway into its season, it’s unclear if, and how, the show can recollect the Pandora’s box of horrors it’s released. But Penny Dreadful: City of Angels so far offers an entertaining promise to figure it out.

  • Penny Dreadful: City of Angels starts in the US on Showtime on 26 April and in the UK at a later date

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