TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. On Showtime this Sunday, one long-running drama series, "Homeland," is ending while another, "Penny Dreadful," is returning after a lengthy hiatus with an entirely new storyline and focus. Our TV critic David Bianculli reviews them both.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Don't worry. I'm not going to reveal any spoilers about the finale of "Homeland," the Showtime series that began nine years ago and presents its final episode this weekend. Based on an Israeli series, "Homeland" began as one kind of show, presenting two characters - a troubled government agent named Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, and an equally troubled war veteran named Nicholas Brody, played by Damian Lewis - as equally unreliable narrators.
The unique brilliance of "Homeland," when it started, was that it presented two main characters without revealing which of them we should root for or against. That lasted for a few seasons, and then Carrie became the central focus of "Homeland," along with her longtime spy chief mentor Saul Berenson, played so superbly by Mandy Patinkin.
This final season's storyline has been truly unnerving, with America on the brink of a nuclear war with Pakistan. And the series is about to end the way it began - with two primary characters fighting for what they feel is right and with viewers torn about where to place their loyalties. Only this time, it's not Carrie and Brody; it's Carrie and Saul. And as "Homeland" ends, it applies almost eerily to these times. This final storyline is all about facts and getting to the truth and whom to believe among the experts and politicians, with many, many lives hanging in the balance
"Penny Dreadful," which returns Sunday, immediately after "Homeland" ends, also has parallels to today, but only if you think of evil as a virus, something that can spread exponentially and dangerously and from the smallest of sources. The name "Penny Dreadful" comes from 1-penny pamphlets popular in Victorian, England - gruesome, fictional and true crime stories that were like horror movies before there were movies. Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street was one favorite character from the penny dreadfuls.
John Logan, who wrote the screenplays for Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" and "The Aviator" and, yes, for Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd," created Showtime's "Penny Dreadful" series as a mashup of period horror stories. The series, which began in 2014 and lasted three seasons, found a way to make room for such characters as Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, Dracula and Dorian Gray. It was wonderfully imaginative and showcased Eva Green in a scene-stealing, mesmerizing role. And now after four years of dormancy, "Penny Dreadful" is back. But like such TV series as "Fargo" and "American Horror Story," it's back with an all new setting and story and with an almost entirely new cast.
This new "Penny Dreadful" edition is called "City Of Angels" and is set in Los Angeles in 1938. It begins the way the first season of "True Detective" did, with the discovery of a brutally staged murder scene. It's meant to spark racial tensions between whites and Chicanos, and there's a parallel plot involving Nazis. The detectives on the case are played by Nathan Lane as the veteran and Daniel Zovatto as his new partner, the first Chicano detective on the LAPD.
The scene-stealer in this "Penny Dreadful" once again is a woman. This time she's Natalie Dormer from "Game Of Thrones," and here she plays a supernatural villain - a female demon who pushes history towards chaos by shape-shifting into several different female forms and influencing events by slyly manipulating the people around her. As the prim assistant to a city councilman played by Michael Gladis, for example, she encourages both his admiration of dictators and his plans to build a freeway that will cut right through minority neighborhoods and probably incite a race riot.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PENNY DREADFUL: CITY OF ANGELS")
NATALIE DORMER: (As Magda) You did magnificently today. You are a strong man.
MICHAEL GLADIS: (As Charles Townsend) Mussolini.
DORMER: (As Magda) Mussolini.
GLADIS: (As Charles) Hitler, even. Now, there's a fellow who understands the judicious exercise of power.
DORMER: (As Magda) That's right. Now you just have to stay the course and keep quiet. You held the public hearings your civic duty required. You've won. I'll get this first motorway under construction and then start working on another one. Keep your transportation committee front and center. Keep you in the papers.
GLADIS: (As Charles) Another motorway?
DORMER: (As Magda) Maybe through Bunker Hill.
GLADIS: (As Charles) That's the colored...
DORMER: (As Magda) No, sir. What that is is too much valuable real estate filled with junkies and junk whores (ph). Not when there's a motorway to be built.
GLADIS: (As Charles) What am I going to wear?
DORMER: (As Magda) Doesn't matter.
BIANCULLI: Every role Natalie Dormer inhabits here looks and sounds completely different. As she spreads her influence and evil like - well, like a pandemic. She's the main reason to watch this new "Penny Dreadful," but it's also nice to know that this particular strain of evil is not only supernatural; it's fictional.
GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of TV and film studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. "Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels" returns Sunday on Showtime, the same night as the series finale of "Homeland."
If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like this week's interview with Zoe Kazan, one of the stars of the HBO adaptation of "The Plot Against America;" or with Marc O'Connell, whose new book "Notes From An Apocalypse" is about people preparing for the end of the world; or with Jennifer Finney Boylan, who's written extensively about her life as a transgender woman and has a new memoir - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY DE MARE'S "THE WORST IN LONDON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.