Why 'Penny Dreadful' Is Returning With a Brand-New World (Including Gods and Nazis)

Creator John Logan talks with The Hollywood Reporter about how the roots of the original Showtime drama lay the groundwork for 'City of Angels.'
Justin Lubin/SHOWTIME
'Penny Dreadful: City of Angels'

Following a three-year "hiatus," Showtime's Penny Dreadful returns to the premium cable network as an unexpected anthology of sorts as John Logan trades Frankenstein in Victorian England in the late 1800s for a story about Los Angeles' Mexican-American folklore roots, circa 1938.  

Billed as Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, the new take — bowing Sunday — is described as a "spiritual descendant" of creator John Logan's original. Save for Rory Kinnear's John Clare, the drama features an entirely new cast but keeps the thematic roots of the original.

City of Angels kicks off with a murder. Daniel Zovatto (HBO's Here and Now) stars as L.A.'s first Latinx police detective, Tiago Vega, who is partnered on the case with seasoned lawman Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane). The investigation ultimately leads them to trace the city's Mexican American folklore, the rise of the Third Reich in Southern California and the pervasive nature of radio evangelism during a time of profound change.

The macabre elements of the Eva Green-led original return in the form of Magda, a shapeshifting demon (played by Game of Thrones alum Natalie Dormer), and her Catholic deity sister, Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). To hear Logan tell it, the melodramatic and pulpy plot elements that also fed the first series could feed into City of Angels, but the new take will ultimately explore the sociopolitical threats America continues to face today.

"I’m struck by parallels to the late ’30s and what’s going on now," Logan said in January at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour. "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."

Below, Logan talks with The Hollywood Reporter about why he returned to the world of Penny Dreadful with a new story, the challenges he faced — as a white Angeleno — building a story world steeped in Mexican-American culture and the classic cinematic representations of L.A. that inspired him.

City of Angels is set in a new century, has a new location and features new characters. Why was it important for you to keep the name Penny Dreadful to identify this new series?

The themes, ideas and how the story is dramatized remind me of the first show. Penny dreadfuls, in their literary form, were shocking provocations, whereas people were bringing crime and murder and the supernatural into their own homes for the first time. And crime and the supernatural are a part of this show. The first Penny Dreadful, in being a Gothic romance, had actual monsters and manifestations of familiar literary forms. In this story, we don't do any of that. The monsters are all, more or less, human. It fits under the same rubric. Partly, it's my own bent as a dramatist to be operatic and audacious in terms of plot, character and how you present a world. This show and that show share that.

Are you concerned that fans of the first will want more of that story instead of a new one? The original ended somewhat abruptly after only three seasons.

Of course. Because those who are deeply committed to the first show are committed to the gothic horror elements and those characters and those actors. So what I'm hoping is people will give this a chance and realize it's a very different beast. But it's a beast worth watching.

Penny Dreadful, at its original core, was the story of Vanessa Ives (Green). What is the overarching thematic story you are telling with City of Angels?

Be careful the choices you make. What Magda represents is the good angel and the bad angel sitting on your shoulder. Which are you going to listen to? We live in a time now where those angels are pervasive. The darker angels have a certain amount of sway and power that I find frightening. As storytellers, we put characters in complicated situations. Here, those situations involve real-world economic, political and social forces. In the first show, they dealt with romantic poetry and about the soul and about grace, in a particularly Catholic way. This is a different set of paradigms.

How many seasons do you see City of Angels going?

I have a plan in place for next season; I hope it goes on endlessly. There's so much history that I am excited to keep exploring.

Using 1938 L.A. as the setting is reminiscent of L.A. Confidential and Chinatown, among others. How did they influence how you brought the city to life?

Chinatown was a major inspiration to me. It's my favorite screenplay ever. For the look of our show, I asked our director of photography and episode directors to look at what John Alonzo did in shooting Los Angeles in Chinatown. I don't think anyone has ever captured the dry heat of Los Angeles better than that movie. And he was doing it without stylization. The danger of a show like this is you fall into film noir. That's what people expect. L.A. Confidential had too much stylization for us. Chinatown has a sensibility that is bright and dry. That's what we were trying to capture, at least cinematographically, with the show. But also, the idea of nefarious forces at work, politically — and in terms of crime, in terms of solving a murder case — play through my head because I just love that movie so much.

City of Angels makes the jump from Victorian London to tell a Mexican American story. You're a white showrunner telling a Mexican American story. What's the composition of your writers room?

I'm an Angeleno. And I wanted to write a story about L.A. I'm proud of having created the Vega family, and I'm honored to get to tell their story. But I firmly believe writers need to be allowed to dream, to imagine and to speak in voices other than their own or I fear we will live in a very anemic and cannibalistic dramatic landscape. Having said that, I did everything I possibly could to bring the Latinx, Chicano and Hispanic voices into the story. Two of our writers, Tatiana Suarez-Pico (Iron Fist, The L Word: Generation Q) and Jose Rivera (Eerie, Indiana; On the Road) come from that tradition. My executive producing partner, Michael Aguilar, the designers, the majority of the cast ... I was very open to saying, "Tell me what's inauthentic." I could tell you what's authentic for Belfast Irish. Jose Rivera, who's an incredible playwright, did a pass to all 10 scripts. The actors were also very engaged. The last thing I want to presume to present myself as is an authority on Chicano culture.

Santa Muerte is a character in the series. How did you approach putting a human face on a diety?

Incredible challenges. I liken it to taking Mary Shelley's creature [from the first Penny Dreadful]. People believe in their versions of Santa Muerte. Our version is one which suits the purposes of this story. The version that was important to me of all the Santa Muertes you could imagine was almost like a Valkyrie. A Brunhilde to bring the souls of people to heaven, and that lonely, sad, mournful task she has to perform, which is an act of grace. The essence of any religious figure is grace — either a lack of it or dialing into it.

How much more will you explore other mythological Mexican figures?

Not this season. It's something that I want to start exploring in later seasons. The Aztec roots, the Mexican roots, of Santa Muerte and folk Catholicism are endlessly fascinating to me. How those ideas matriculated to Los Angeles is interesting.

In addition to Mexican American folklore, part of your story has a pre-World War II Nazi element a time when L.A. is going through intense change. How do you bring those big concepts together?

It's the biggest challenge. How do you keep a center of gravity? In episode three, we introduce the whole Pachuco culture and the Crimson Cat Nightclub they all dance at. The world keeps expanding. The danger is that it becomes amorphous and it spins out of control. The two things I did to unify it was to create the character of Magda, who goes between all the stories and helps provide some sort of cohesion. And always remembering that this is a story about the Vega family. I always try to keep the Vega family and all their individual storylines center in my emotional thinking.

Interview edited for length and clarity.