Simmering racial tensions and a brutal quadruple murder—not to mention a supernatural conflict between a demon and a saint—are making life very interesting for a newly minted Latino LAPD officer in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels. It’s Showtime’s spinoff series of its award-winning, critically acclaimed series, Penny Dreadful, which ended its run in 2016 after three seasons.
Created by John Logan, the original Penny Dreadful took its name from the lurid and sensational popular 19th-century British novels known as “penny dreadfuls.” Sweeney Todd, aka “the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” highwayman Dick Turpin, and Varney the Vampire were among the notable fictional characters who first appeared in these cheap periodicals.
Logan drew heavily on more literary figures from that era for his main plots and characters: Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, primarily. While the first season occasionally took the macabre horror to ridiculous heights, the show soon found its tonal footing, and the second and third seasons earned widespread critical raves, racking up numerous Emmy nominations and several BAFTA awards.
(Some mild spoilers below, but no major reveals.)
City of Angels takes place nearly 40 years after the original series, in 1938, and as such trades in the gothic horror of its predecessor for a more Chandler-esque film noir aesthetic, infused with traditional Mexican-American folklore. This period coincides with the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood. But Los Angeles was also a cauldron of simmering racial tensions between white residents and the local Mexican-American population, augmented by an influx of German immigrants just as Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich was reaching the apex of its power.
This is the broader canvas on which a shape-shifting supernatural demon, Magda (Natalie Dormer), conspires to bring out the worst in humanity and ensure their self-destruction. Magda’s “sister,” Santa Muerte (the saint of death in Mexican-American folklore), played by Lorenza Izzo, also plays a central role, since it is she who welcomes human souls to the afterlife upon their death.
“You take our heart, we take yours.”
There’s a lot going on in the first two episodes we screened. Our main human protagonist is Santiago “Tiago” Vega (Daniel Zovatto), who has a brush with Santa Muerte as a child on the day his father and many other migrant workers died in a tragic fire (caused by Magda, of course) in the opening scene. Fast forward to Tiago as an adult, as he becomes the first Mexican-American detective at the LAPD. And his first case with partner Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane) is a doozy: a brutal quadruple murder, in which the corpses have had their hearts removed and are ritualistically painted in Day of the Dead fashion. Written in blood nearby is a chilling message in Spanish: “You take our heart, we take yours.”
This is interpreted by the detectives as a reference to the city’s planned razing of a revered church in the Latino community of Belvedere Heights to make way for what will one day become the 110 freeway. The residents are furious, and Tiago’s brother, Raul (Adam Rodriguez), is among the leaders of an uprising against the planned destruction after the community’s petition to the LA City Council Transportation Committee to stay the project is denied.
Lighting the fuse
Meanwhile, a German pediatrician named Peter Craft (Rory Kinnear, who played the Creature in the original Penny Dreadful) is organizing public demonstrations with his fellow Nazi sympathizers to spread propaganda and encourage the US to stay out of the war in Europe. In short, the city is a powder keg waiting to blow. And Magda is there in various incarnations (all played to perfection by Dormer) to light the fuse.
The episodes we screened were particularly noteworthy for how well they evoked the period details of Los Angeles, right down to the racial tensions surrounding the construction of the 110 freeway and the demographics of the various local neighborhoods. That accuracy was a top priority in designing the look and feel of the series, according to VFX supervisor John Heller.
“We relied on a lot of historical footage of what downtown LA looked like at the time,” he told Ars. “We did months and months of research for accuracy, even changing the topography of where we shot to reflect how things were laid out.” For one major scene later in the season, they had to replace most of present-day Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, adding trolley cars and recreating buildings as they would have appeared in the late 1930s.
“We relied on a lot of historical footage of what downtown LA looked like at the time.”
The conflict between Magda and her sister Santa Muerte is central to the show. The opening scene, where Magda starts the fire that kills Tiago’s father and so many others, sets up that conflict and stands in stark contrast to the more grounded aspects of the show. “It’s her way of bringing souls to her sister,” said Heller.
The fire itself is CGI—setting an actual fire in drought-ridden California would not have been wise, to put it mildly—but there was much discussion on how it should look. It’s almost a character in its own right, or rather, an extension of Magda and her destructive power. “It follows her and peaks around her, like a cape,” said Heller. “We wanted to keep it realistic but also show that this is something that’s part of her toolset.”
The biggest challenge, according to Heller, was maintaining that delicate balance between the realistic and other-worldly aspects of the show, since Logan was adamant that he didn’t want the series to veer too much into science fiction. The 1973 film The Exorcist proved a handy reference point. “There are things that happen in The Exorcist that are very supernatural, but we recognize that maybe there’s a world in which these things do happen,” said Heller. “There’s a subtlety to it. We had to keep things grounded, yet still be able to occasionally shock audiences”—especially in the later episodes.
The first episode of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, “Santa Muerte,” was released online and on demand by Showtime on April 23, 2020. It makes its broadcast premiere on Sunday, April 26, 2020.
Listing image by YouTube/Showtime