How Los Angeles Is a Character in Penny Dreadful®: City of Angels

How Los Angeles Is a Character in Penny Dreadful®: City of Angels

Hit drama series “Penny Dreadful” went off the air in 2016 after three horror-filled seasons of thrills and scares. Now, four years later, Showtime® is introducing a new epic, relevant, mysterious and unpredictable drama that blends the earthly and supernatural worlds with modern relevance in the new series Penny Dreadful®: City of Angels.

The new series is a hybridization of fact and fantasy that reflects the conjoining of real history with the supernatural world. A bold vision of complex characters and storylines where the forces of good and evil will battle for the soul of the city of Los Angeles.

Nineteen-thirty-eight Los Angeles is the perfect backdrop for a gruesome murder case that shocks the city, leading Detectives Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto) and Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane) on an epic journey that reflects the rich history of Los Angeles. From the construction of the city’s first freeways to its deep traditions of Mexican-America folklore, “Penny Dreadful” combines supernatural forces, the Third Reich uprising, and brutal violence as Tiago and Lewis grapple with dark and powerful forces that threaten to tear down the entire city.

“The more I thought about folk Catholic deity of Santa Muerte, the more I thought it could fit under the rubric of ‘Penny Dreadful,’ as well as the sort of melodramatic and sort of pulpy plot elements that also fed the first series could feed this series,” creator John Logan told the 2020 Television Critics Association winter press tour. “So I showed up at [the Showtime] offices one day and said, ‘It’s not Victorian. It’s not Gothic. It’s the opposite. It’s bright, sunny L.A., and it’s about history and politics.'”

But Los Angeles is not merely the setting and filming location. The city’s complicated history with Mexican-American residents and folklore, coupled with the pre-World War II tensions and its freeway-system expansion turns Los Angeles into a character itself on the show.

Logan went on to say that it was particularly important to set this series in 1930s Los Angeles — 1938, to be exact, as that was when the newly-built freeways began dividing the city into racial segments.

Showing the audience a map of 1938 Los Angeles, Logan said, “What strikes me [about Los Angeles at this time] is the free exchange of ideas, information, and culture through neighborhoods and along roads.”

Turning to a map of Los Angeles in 2020, he said, “The first thing you note is the freeways. So what began as a civil engineering project turned into a sort of de facto social engineering. And because of these freeways, we no longer have Sugar Hill or Bunker Hill, most of North Main Street, Sonoratown. What we’ve created are quarantine zones for ethnic minorities. So we have Watts. We have East L.A. And this pattern that began in Los Angeles was then replicated across the country … I found that a compelling story to tell, and that’s where [“Penny Dreadful: City of Angels”] came from.”

Part of the story, therefore, is pulling back the curtain on what people naturally think of when they think about Los Angeles in 1938 — “Hollywood and Metro Goldwyn Mayer and Dorothy in the red slippers” — and exposing what was really going on in the city back then, like “the rise of extremist political hatred, of a sort of racist demagoguery that is taken for granted, and particularly the marginalization and victimization of an ethnic community,” said Logan.

In doing his research for the show, Logan said he was shocked at just how much the rise of the Third Reich in Germany affected Los Angeles in this time period, which then informed the show.

“The biggest revelation I had researching this was the extent of the Third Reich infiltration of Los Angeles in the late ’30s,” revealed Logan. “…New York was closed to them because Mayor LaGuardia was half Jewish, so he wasn’t letting Germans in. There was a real iron wall around New York, but California, particularly Los Angeles, was like the Wild West…[t]he aircraft factories were centered here, the armament factories, the film studios, so it became really rife for sabotage and for [the] clandestine activity of the Third Reich. This was a revelation to me that any of this even happened in my beautiful hometown, that this could have happened. So it’s a major part of the story and a fascinating part of the story.”

To find the perfect filming location for this kind of story, Logan knew they needed to shoot in downtown Los Angeles, not in the glare of the glitter and glamour of Hollywood. But that presented another problem: 2020 Los Angeles doesn’t look that much like it did in 1938.

“Anything that has us out in L.A., which we are all the time, is always a challenge because there are buildings, there are airplanes, there are things that just aren’t of our world. So trying to find a granular texture that feels like 1938 in 2020 is always a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge,” said Logan, adding, “Our location people are brilliant about hunting down locations, even if it’s an angle or stairway or the facade of a building, that feels authentic.”

“Every time we went out, we knew we needed it to feel congested and busy, like a proper city, not like a backlot. So we bought hundreds of [vintage] cars, and we rent the other cars we need so we’ll have a sense of life to it,” Logan added.

Watch 1938 Los Angeles come to life in the new series “Penny Dreadful®: City of Angels” Sundays at 10/9c on Showtime®. Separate Showtime® subscription required.

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