The most important thing to know about Penny Dreadful: City of Angels is that you don’t need to have seen the original series in order to understand the new Showtime series.
But if you were a fan of the John Logan-created gothic horror drama, Logan and the cast promise to deliver a very similar sort of story, albeit one set in 1938 Los Angeles instead of Victorian-era London. “As much as this is its own beast with its own DNA, the same creative vision is behind it,” Logan said at the Television Critics Association press tour this week. “To carry that positive energy forward in this show was gratifying for me.”
Rather than bring together literary figures for a blood-drenched tale, City of Angels focuses on a murder being investigated by new police detective Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto) and his partner Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane). But the show, much like the city in which it’s set, sprawls to also take on the brewing political and cultural forces in play during this very specific time and place—which also reflect upon our world today.
Below is some of the most important information learned during the panel, including why it’s set in 1938, and why Nazis are a big deal.
The show was inspired by the LA freeway system.
To set up the series, Logan showed critics a map of Los Angeles today, which is divided into sections by many highways. This dividing-up of L.A. broke up neighborhoods and, in Logan’s words, “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.”
1938 specifically is when the Arroyo Seco Parkway, also known as the 110 to locals, was being built. “To suggest the scope of this, one only needs to visit Cesar Chavez Avenue now. If you live on Cesar Chavez Avenue and you want to walk to Los Angeles County General Hospital, less than half a mile away, you have to cross 41 lanes of freeway,” Logan said.
Finding the cars was one of the toughest parts of production.
Shooting a period piece is tough when a show wants to use exterior locations, which City of Angels does frequently. “Our show is about downtown L.A., about Pasadena, about the beach, about all the different characters and social worlds interacting that have nothing to do with Hollywood,” Logan said.
However, that meant the show was competing with other productions in town for key elements, including vintage cars. “We fought with Perry Mason for a lot of them,” Logan said, referring to the 2020 HBO limited series starring Matthew Rhys as the famed lawyer.
Tiago is the show’s Hamlet.
That was how Logan described the character, as a way of explaining why he spent six months making Zovatto audition. “When you’re building Hamlet, which is how I see that character, you have to see all the facets illuminated. We put Danny through his paces endlessly, but really, from his first audition, I knew and prayed he would be the guy for us,” Logan said.
The character of Lewis was written for Nathan Lane.
Logan was inspired by Lane’s theater work, specifically, and so “the minute I created the Vega family and decided Tiago needed a mentor, I thought it would be Nathan Lane. It was as simple as that.”
Lane said he was surprised that Logan had thought of him for the role, given his comedy background, but Logan mentioned his more serious work on stage, in particular a production of The Iceman Cometh. Quipped Lane, “So O’Neill finally paid off.”
Natalie Dormer plays multiple characters.
Or, rather, “iterations” (Dormer’s word), as the mysterious “Magda” turns up in many different forms in the show. “I just have a lot of fun interweaving with all the cast, being several antagonists, which I’m thrilled to be doing,” the Game of Thrones actor said. “Every character [is] a different wig, different voice, different physicality. This is catnip to an actor. It’s a dream.”
There are Nazis.
Rory Kinnear is the only member of the City of Angels cast who previously appeared in Penny Dreadful, but this time he does not have to go through hours of make-up every day (as he did when playing the show’s take on Frankenstein). He does, however, have to wear a Nazi uniform, as he plays Dr. Peter Craft, a German immigrant with certain political leanings.
“The biggest revelation I had researching this, the years of researching this, was the extent of the Third Reich infiltration of Los Angeles in the late ’30s,” says Logan. “Because 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, and the aircraft factories were centered here, the armament factories, the film studios, so it became really rife for sabotage and for clandestine activity of the Third Reich.”
The show is about the past, but really about today.
Bringing Nazis into the mix is something Logan did deliberately as a reflection on our current political climate, including the recent revelations about Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. “As the Russian meddling in our electoral process became more and more apparent, it became more and more disturbing, because it was like this great octopus under the surface, and I didn’t know what it meant and how long those tentacles were, so I personally found it very frightening. And I was shocked,” he said.
Thus, depicting the Nazi presence in Los Angeles, he added, is a major part of the City of Angels story because “it reminds me of exactly how I feel now, which is there’s a monster out there, and I don’t understand it.”
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels premieres April 26 on Showtime.
Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She recently spent five years as TV Editor at Indiewire, and her work has also been published by
The New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of “X-Files” trivia. Follow her on Twitter at @lizlet.
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