“Penny Dreadful: City of Angels” all started with creator John Logan’s love of maps. In this case, historic maps of Los Angeles, and how they chronicle the city’s rapid growth in the early part of the 20th century.
As a matter of fact, Logan kept a colossal map of 1938-era L.A. on an easel in his office at the Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita, where much of “City of Angels” filmed this past winter. Visitors would be treated to a quick history of the area as Logan used the map — and its overlays — to illustrate what inspired him to write the new Showtime drama series.
“This show is a cartographer’s dream,” Logan says with the enthusiasm of someone who has spent many hours poring over historic files in the Los Angeles Public Library’s tremendous map collection. And in particular, what caught him was how the freeway system cut through the city, displacing neighborhoods and marginalizing the parts of L.A. where people of color lived.
“I thought that was a fascinating story,” Logan says. “Because, how did that happen? If you were a poor Latino family living in what’s now East L.A., and the city said, ‘Eminent domain — we’re going to bulldoze your house and you’ve got to move,’ where are you going to go? Restrictive housing covenants said you couldn’t move to this or that neighborhood.
“And so the idea of social displacement of ethnic minorities became what I was interested in writing about,” he says. “And you can’t tell the story about the history of Los Angeles without dealing with the Mexican American story. And you can’t tell the story about the building of freeways without dealing with the communities that were displaced.”
That led to Logan’s “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels,” which premieres April 26 on Showtime. The series centers on the Vega family: Middle son Tiago (Daniel Zovatto) is the first Mexican American detective in the Los Angeles Police Department — which doesn’t go over well with the rest of the force. His younger brother, Mateo (Johnathan Nieves), gets involved with pachuco culture, perhaps most famously remembered for its zoot suits, while older brother Raul (Adam Rodriguez) is a union organizer fighting the construction of the Arroyo Seco Parkway, a project that threatens to destroy his community.
“The idea of the first Chicano detective in the LAPD really appealed to me,” Logan says. “What would that experience have been like for him as a man caught between various worlds? I researched and talked to a lot of people about the Mexican American, Chicano experience, both in Los Angeles then and Los Angeles now — about the pachuco culture, about music, about religion.”
Nathan Lane stars as Tiago’s partner, Lewis Michener, an aging officer who’s Jewish and knows what it’s like to be marginalized inside the department.
“It’s certainly the best and most emotionally complex role I’ve ever been given in film or television,” says Lane. “It’s a really interesting yarn John’s created. It’s really about the making of Los Angeles and how what seemed like creating these freeways for accessibility is also about separating people and separating neighborhoods — the Mexicans from the Jews from the blacks. I did not know a lot of the L.A. history. I’m a New Yorker. But it was interesting to see it from John’s point of view.”
For his tale of 1930s Los Angeles, Logan also tackles the power of that era’s radio evangelism — with Sister Molly (Kerry Bishé), a character loosely inspired by famed L.A. preacher Aimee Semple McPherson. And he takes on the lesser-known growing Nazi movement in the city at the time, via the character of pediatrician Peter Craft (Rory Kinnear), who doubles as the leader of the German-American Bund.
“I started reading about the Third Reich influence in Los Angeles, which is complete news to me,” Logan says. “In the last few years, a couple of really good books have come out dealing with Third Reich sabotage and infiltration of Los Angeles. I’m an Angeleno, and I had never heard of any of this.”
“City of Angels” is a sequel of sorts to Logan’s 19th century-set macabre series “Penny Dreadful,” which ended its three-season run in 2016. The original revolved around familiar horror characters living in Victorian London, such as Dorian Gray and Frankenstein’s monster. Logan says he didn’t originally plan to do another “Penny Dreadful,” and definitely didn’t want to revisit the time frame of the original.
“I’ve done Gothic horror: I did ‘Sweeney Todd’; I did ‘Penny Dreadful.’ I never want to go back to the 1890s again,” he says. “But I told Showtime, if there’s ever a story that occurs to me that could use operatic expression and the grand statements that television allows you to make, that could fit under that umbrella, I’ll bring it to you. So I brought them this.”
But this being “Penny Dreadful,” there still had to be a supernatural element. And Logan found it in Santa Muerte, the idol in Mexican folk Catholicism that personifies death. In “City of Angels,” Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo) is given plenty of departed souls to collect via the character of Magda (Natalie Dormer), who can take on multiple forms, and uses the power of suggestion to steer mortals into horrific acts. Meanwhile, as the Vega matriarch, Maria (Adriana Barraza) aims to protect her family from the political and spiritual forces threatening them. The mix of L.A. history and the metaphysical is why Lane describes the show as “Raymond Chandler meets Rod Serling.”
“The major theme of the first ‘Penny Dreadful’ was ‘Accept the monster within yourself,’ because we all are,” Logan says. “This is more ‘Beware the monsters around you.’ They’re not supernatural monsters; they’re not vampires and werewolves. Magda doesn’t wave her magic wand and lightning bolts shoot out. She whispers to people. She manipulates them.”
All of these story elements — from the displacement of minorities to a rising nationalist movement and the danger of mass media propaganda — is why Logan feels his new “Penny Dreadful” couldn’t be timelier, despite being set more than 80 years ago.
“The most thematic core of the show for me has to do with something we’re gradually losing sight of, which is humanism and compassion and empathy,” he says. “I’m 58. I’ve lived through a lot of epochs of history, but I always felt at the basic core of democracy there was a trust and belief and love for your fellow man or your fellow citizens, in a way. And to see that eroded so violently throughout the world, not just in America, was really upsetting and it made me angry — at my own naiveté, at my own inaction, about this world of ours. And all of that fueled wanting to do this.”
Outside his office at the Melody Ranch, the studio backlot — which just recently doubled as the 1880s town of “Deadwood” for the HBO reunion movie — has now been made over to look like Belvedere Heights, a fictional 1930s L.A. neighborhood inspired by Boyle Heights, Highland Park and long-erased areas like Sonoratown and Chavez Ravine (now home to Dodger Stadium). Production designer Maria Caso, who also worked on “Deadwood,” has re-created storefronts and apartment facades based on photos of buildings that once existed on streets such as North Main, later torn apart by the freeways.
“I took my art directors and we went to the old neighborhoods, and a lot of the houses are gone, but some were still there,” Caso says. “We spoke to the people who were living in the houses, and for some, their great-grandparents were there in 1938. That was a big inspiration for us. I don’t want to sound cliché, but I feel like the street’s a character in its own right, because it has a lot of history, and every single building on the street is a building that really existed.”
Logan lauds Caso for giving the show’s directors and actors “an incredible sense of total immersion. You want it to feel like a real world.” The show went on location all around Los Angeles — to familiar spots like City Hall, the L.A. River, MacArthur Park and Echo Park and to lesser-known areas. “What’s been so great has been getting into the city and really falling in love with it again,” he says.
Another upcoming series, Netflix’s “Hollywood,” also mines old Los Angeles to tell a period story. But in the case of “City of Angels,” Logan says he was conscious about keeping the entertainment business mostly out of it. “When people ask me if I’m doing a Hollywood show, I tell them no, Hollywood is never mentioned in the show. We’re dealing with Los Angeles — and the various neighborhoods around downtown. So I felt it was important we actually try to build something that doesn’t exist anymore, which is the urban heart of 1938 Los Angeles.”
It wasn’t cheap — not least was the need to find the proper cars from the era. “Our transportation department was able to rent, buy, borrow, steal what was necessary,” he says.
Logan was even obsessive about getting the lighting of the city right. “Our model was ‘Chinatown,’” he says. “They were able to capture something so authentic of what L.A. feels like. Hot, baking sunshine; things are bleached out, without it being stylized in any way. I always tell the directors: ‘It’s 100 degrees and sunny every day on this show. That’s the feel.’”
Having created the characters of “City of Angels,” Logan says he has grown attached to its world — and he’s eager to tell more stories. He says he’s most of the way through the scripts on a second season. “As the Arroyo Seco was built, we’re already planning the next freeway,” he says. “So there is a natural animal organism to the history of Los Angeles that keeps moving forward in a really dramatic way. In the best of all possible worlds, I think the show goes on forever.”