On HBO’s Perry Mason, Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, and the Allure of 1930s Los Angeles

Why two prestige networks are revisiting known brands through a well-documented era in California history.

TV Features Perry Mason
On HBO’s Perry Mason, Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, and the Allure of 1930s Los Angeles

So much of what people know about Los Angeles is based on what Hollywood’s motion picture and television industry tells them about the city. These tropes and stories and settings were established during a specific era in Los Angeles, known more generally as the Interwar period in the United States: evangelists with show-stopping theatrics promised salvation to the desperate, segregation flourished, corrupt cops flaunted their power, and bad things could happen to nice and moral ladies who weren’t careful and went down dark alleys.

Iconic projects like Chinatown and Bugsy have fed our collective fascination with this era and the years surrounding it. Now, two new TV shows have donned their fedoras and returned to the scene of the crime: Showtime’s Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, which airs its first season finale on June 28, and HBO’s Perry Mason, which premieres June 21.

Both shows are Los Angeles-set detective mysteries that grew out of known intellectual properties. The original Penny Dreadful, which ran for three seasons on Showtime, was a strikingly cinematic Gothic horror piece set in Victorian London that wove in known literary characters like Dorian Gray and Victor Frankenstein. The new one leans into Mexican American supernatural stories to create what Paste has described in our review as “a period historical piece as much as it is a tale of monsters, and the uncomfortable view of mankind it reflects back at us is both predictably and painfully bleak.”

The new version of Perry Mason has less to do with the courtroom drama featuring Raymond Burr and his polished, double breasted suits than with the character’s early days as a struggling private investigator. It therefore leans heavily on the world depicted in creator Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels. As Paste’s review of that show points out, some parts feel like a period piece that is “one part campy west-coast Gotham (there are unemployment lines and movie sets), one part Spielbergian nostalgia, one part noir” while other parts … do not.

But both shows use this specific time in California history as a roadmap for how our country came to find itself in is current racial and social divides.

“The most important thing to remember, for me, about this show is, although it’s set in 1938, it’s about 2020,” said John Logan, who created both Penny Dreadfuls, to journalists while promoting the new series in January at the winter Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, California. “Looking over the world landscape now, I’m struck by parallels to the late ‘30s and what’s going on now, particularly the rise of extremist political hatred, of a sort of racist demagoguery that is taken for granted, by the pernicious influence in the danger of a foreign power in our electoral process, in our communication, and particularly by the marginalization and victimization of an ethnic community.”

It doesn’t hurt, he said later in the panel that “I love the late ‘30s. I love the costumes. I love the hats. I love the guns. I love the cars. There’s a certain patina and panache to design at that area as we’re sort of moving out of Art Deco into industrialism [architecture] that was sort of fun to keep exploring.”

Similarly, Perry Mason showrunners Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald tell Paste that they set out to make what Fitzgerald says would be a “prequel story that leads up to the first pages of the first [Gardner] novel” with the idea being of looking at “how this guy became that Raymond Burr, you know, the best defense lawyer in the country.”

Fitzgerald says that, “if those novels had been set in the ‘70s, we probably would have done the ‘70s.” But, Jones adds, they soon realized that 1930s Los Angeles was also rich with story ideas.

“It seems like it’s this old timey little moment, but it’s this moment right before the gangsters sort of take over … [and also] this little moment for Los Angeles where it is the birth of the city internationally,” Jones says. “It’s the first time where the sort of, you know, these three industries that are coming up—oil, agriculture, and movies—are sort of sending a message back to the rest of the world that we are this big city in Los Angeles.”

He adds that it “just seemed like birth of a city” fit well with the idea of the “birth of this iconic American character.”

The writers room alumni for sardonic shows like Showtime’s Weeds and United States of Tara also appreciated finding the dark humor in these characters’ mannerisms, such as the awkward and lonely coroner who just wants to tell his crazy work-related stories to someone with a pulse.

“These people just went through World War I and they’re in the middle of the Depression and Prohibition’s going on … they don’t have time to sit around and naval gaze,” Fitzgerald says. “These are people who lose children on the regular. The mortality rate in childbirth is not great. They are not so removed from pioneer times that life’s short. Enjoy it and don’t complain so much.”

And, as is the viewpoint with many current Angelenos, the glamour of Hollywood is acknowledged but it’s not the whole story.

“We knew this was a show that was set in downtown L.A. and that’s one of the things that I think is really significant about this show,” Penny Dreadful’s Logan explained at TCA. “When people think of Los Angeles in the 1930s, they invariably think about Hollywood and MetroGoldwynMayer and Dorothy in the red slippers. And that’s not our show. 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.”

Clearly all of this is enticing to writers, but what about to audiences?

“Our sweet spot is the early to mid-20th century,” says Kim Cooper, the co-owner of Esotouric, a tour company based in Los Angeles that specializes in local crime and history. Although her company has programs based around the Manson murders as well as more niche ones like a tour about musician Tom Waits, she says that “noir Los Angeles is evergreen” and that “this era resonates so well in many different media” who want to bring these stories back because “Los Angeles was this new city, so we had no establishment.”

This means, she says, that anyone who was successful during this period—be it through striking oil, making movies, participating in the burgeoning aerospace industry, or something else—“is self-made.”

“If you’re very wealthy, you know, you’re either lucky or ruthless. If you’re very popular, you’re incredibly charismatic,” Cooper says. “Every single character that they’re drawing on for these new interpretations,is a person who rose on their own merits, and is just a fascinating figure themselves.”

And all of that makes for good TV.

Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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