Los Angeles — with its rapid and untrammeled expansion, its low-hanging sun, and its status as the factory where our collective dreams, and nightmares, are born — provides unusually fertile territory for horror. And “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels,” a spinoff on a previous Showtime series set in Victorian London, capitalizes, minting an engaging and finely-tuned story set in Hollywood in 1938, its so-called Golden Age. The presence of the supernatural, bleeding into the lives of the hapless mortal Angelenos we meet, feels from the start fairly natural — what’s Hollywood if not haunted? In setting, tone, and several fine and evocative performances, “City of Angels” cements itself as a fine entrant in the horror-on-TV genre.
Several, indeed, of those fine and evocative performances are being delivered by Natalie Dormer, the “Game of Thrones” standout who ports in all of the rage and resentment her Margaery Tyrell was too adept at palace intrigue to fully express. Dormer plays, foremost, a shape-shifting demon who sows chaos in her wake; that demon’s manifestations include a meek but increasingly powerful aide-de-camp to a local politician (Michael Gladis) and a young emigré who catches the attention of a German physician (Rory Kinnear). In both cases, Dormer’s machinations — her use of soft power, persuasion, and seduction — have the larger goal of bringing society further into chaos and sowing the seeds of greater Nazi penetration into the U.S.
This series knows well that horror exists within the context of history — that, indeed, some of the greatest chills of all can be wrung from our real-life inhumanity as witnessed over time. This show’s subplot about Nazi infiltration into the government is played both with outsized, creeping dread and with a certain degree of frankness and plainspokenness. For all that it’s shepherded along by an immortal demon, it’s also a story with its roots in human frailty. (In this regard, this show is more watchable and perhaps more creatively successful than two other shows about Third Reich members or sympathizers making inroads stateside, the loopy Amazon fantasia “Hunters” or the rigorous, glossily remote “The Plot Against America.”)
Elsewhere, too, prejudice haunts the story; a Mexican-American police detective we follow, Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto), sees his family suffer the blows of racism — perhaps most especially his sister Josefina (Jessica Garza), the victim of another cop’s brutality — and finds himself an utter outsider on the force. (His engagement with the Anglo world also creates a bit of distance between Tiago and his mother, an ardent believer in folk religion played by Adriana Barraza.) The only person to whom he can relate is his partner (Nathan Lane), a figure whose lack of prejudice sets him apart, and is but one of many well-drawn differentiations from the rest of the L.A.P.D. The pair’s relative cool-headedness serves them as they trace a murder case deep into a snarled web of hatreds, ones we’ve seen Dormer’s characters set into motion long before the cops get there. Watching them figure out what’s going on, and hoping, a bit, for yet more of a show fueled both by fiery passion and by a chilly understanding of our own potential for cruelty before the case is cracked, is the engine of this well-made series.