NEWHALL, Calif. — On a sun-drunk afternoon in late February, John Logan tramped down the middle of a deserted street, passing an empty nightclub, a shuttered cinema, a vacant rooming house — relics of a past that never quite existed.
“We sort of created this whole world,” Logan said, his shoes kicking up dust.
This street, the main drag of an invented Chicano neighborhood called Belvedere Heights, hunkers at the symbolic center of “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels,” a fantastical horror-whodunit. Logan’s original “Penny Dreadful,” which ended a three-season run in 2016, offered a speculative fiction supergroup, imagining Dracula, Dorian Gray, Frankenstein and his monster romping through Victorian London. Its companion piece, debuting Sunday on Showtime, is arguably stranger.
Set in Los Angeles in 1938 and sparked by the murder of a Beverly Hills family — their four bodies desecrated and dumped in the city’s concrete riverbed — this new show combines mystery, history, mythology and metaphor. A noir-inflected chronicle of the birth of Los Angeles’s freeway system, crisscrossed with the travails of a Mexican-American family, the tale includes Zoot-suited pachucos, Nazi infiltrators and a shape-shifting succubus played by Natalie Dormer (“Game of Thrones”). Think “Chinatown,” but with demons. Then think some more.
“Yeah, look,” Nathan Lane, one of its stars later told me, “there’s a lot going on.”
I met Logan two months ago, on set, two weeks before shooting wrapped and four before Los Angeles announced a shelter-in-place order. “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels” had taken over Melody Ranch, an arid century-old studio in the Santa Clarita Valley. Before leading me on a tour of the outdoor sets and soundstages, Logan, an elfin presence with a demeanor that splits the difference between fanatical and very nice, greeted me at his office in a repurposed hacienda. He had kitted out the room with Hitchcock posters and “Murder She Wrote” memorabilia. Behind a leather couch stood a large map, maybe six feet by four feet, showing Los Angeles County in 1938.
Last summer, just ahead of shooting, he sat his principal cast in front of that map and pulled down a plastic overlay. That afternoon, he pulled it down for me, too.
“Here,” he said, “you’ll love this.”
The overlay showed how the coming freeway system, drawn on the plastic in blood-red lines, sliced through some poor communities and isolated others. “What the freeway system became was essentially a way of creating quarantine zones in Los Angeles,” he said.
Logan, a screenwriter and a Tony-winning playwright, drives these freeways every day. He loves the system — the cloverleafs, the underpasses. “I mean, is it brutalist? Yes, it is,” he said. “But there’s also something aesthetically beautiful about it.” After the 2016 election, he began to wonder about how those freeways were made and how they had formed and deformed the city.
Los Angeles, which has largely effaced its Mexican past, likes to pretend it doesn’t have much history. A city full of aspirants who came in search of new names and new noses, it prefers to tear down and rebuild, bigger and shinier.
“L.A. doesn’t care who you are when you arrive,” one “Penny Dreadful” character says. “It only cares who you make yourself into.”
Still, Logan loves its history, however hard he has to work to find it. He leapt into research on the freeways, unearthing old city maps and urban planning documents. He hadn’t imagined running another series, which he described as the most “killing occupation in the world.” And he hadn’t planned on a new iteration of “Penny Dreadful.” But the city in the ’30s, with its anti-immigrant sentiments, radio evangelism and infiltration by a foreign power (in this case, the Third Reich), resonated with the present. He wanted to tell that story, and he sensed that a film or a play wouldn’t hold it.
He set the show in 1938, when construction on the Arroyo Seco Parkway, regarded as Los Angeles’s first freeway began. (The road didn’t displace Mexican-American communities as entirely as did the construction of Dodger Stadium in the 1950s, but it did affect some neighborhoods.) That date situates the series a few years after the repatriation movement, in which Mexican residents were encouraged, sometimes aggressively, to return to Mexico, and a bit before the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, in which white American servicemen attacked Chicano youth.
Because Logan loves noir, he dreamed up the inciting murder, decorated the corpses with Día de Muertos makeup and assigned the case to a rookie Chicano detective, Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto), and his Jewish partner, Lane’s Lewis Michener. Vega’s Mexican-American background pushed Logan to explore certain folklore. Soon Santa Muerte, a folk Catholic death goddess, began to make appearances.
How Santa Muerte then prompted a sister deity, Natalie Dormer’s British-accented chaos demon, is less clear. “I think of an immortal cosmology, which transcends time and space and things like language,” Logan said, not especially helpfully.
Why does the show need demons at all? I asked Michael Aguilar, Logan’s producing partner. He took an extravagant pause. “‘Need’ is one of those words …” he began, and then he tried again. “It’s a fun way, a really entertaining way to tell the story of the building of a freeway,” he said.
With demons onboard, the tension between the human and the supernatural invited a return to the “Penny Dreadful” brand. Gary Levine, a president of entertainment at Showtime and a fan of the original “Penny Dreadful,” had always hoped that Logan would extend the show to other times and places. He greenlit this new project, placing substantial resources behind it.
“I won’t tell you the budget,” Levine said. “But I will say that it is not an inexpensive show.”
In February, a few hours after I left Logan at the ranch, I saw some of those funds put to use. Though Melody Ranch sprawls over 22 acres and includes several sound stages housing various interiors including a meticulously re-created police precinct, Logan had run out of space. So his team conjured an approximation of ’30s Broadway, then Downtown Los Angeles’s main thoroughfare, on the Universal backlot. As neon lights buzzed and classic cars rumbled, more than 200 background players — sailors, pachucos, lady shoppers — crowded the sidewalk, wandering in and out of practical stores, setting up for what the script described as a “continued melee.”
I grew up in Los Angeles, as did my mother, and when I blocked out the parka-clad production assistants it felt as if I’d fallen through time and onto a street my grandparents, who moved here as teenagers, might have strolled, a bar where they might have had a drink, the Bullocks windows where they might have admired a beachwear display. I stopped to chat with two extras, young men dressed in the costume designer Christie Wittenborn’s natty, baggy Zoot suits.
“It does transform you,” one said, showing off his tweed jacket.
Zovatto felt that transformation, too. “John made this capsule, this bubble where you would enter and you would be in the 1930s,” he said, speaking by telephone in early March. “It wasn’t green screen; it was tangible.”
Lane put it like this: “You don’t have to use your imagination.”
In the original “Penny Dreadful,” with its werewolves and vampires, Logan could use his imagination however he liked. But summoning Los Angeles in 1938 meant assuming new responsibilities.
Logan asked one of the writers, José Rivera, to vet the scripts with an eye toward language and authenticity. Rivera paid particular attention to the Vega family. “I was very careful to make sure that the details of the emotional life of those people rang true and didn’t succumb to a kind of exoticism or strange, tourist-like view of Latin culture,” he said.
The producers also solicited advice from the cast, particularly Adriana Barraza, the Mexican actress who plays Maria, the Vega matriarch, who would tell them when an accent or a piece of clothing read wrong. Maria Caso, the show’s production designer, and her team drove the length of the Arroyo Seco and researched affected neighborhoods, knocking on real doors, photographing real houses, hearing stories passed down from parents and grandparents, imbuing the sets with what they observed.
Still, this scrupulous attention to period detail is ultimately in the service of allegory. “Even though our show is set in 1938, it has to be about 2020 or it has no reason to exist,” Logan said. “Race relations, social engineering, politics, espionage — all of that was bubbling away exactly the way it’s bubbling away now.”
Which is to say that the murders, the clothes and the demons are the sugar coating on a choking kind of pill. Because the ultimate argument of “Penny Dreadful” is the idea that not much has changed, that very human horrors — demagoguery, brutality — remain.
“Well, it’s called ‘Penny Dreadful,’” Logan said, just before I left him at the adobe hacienda. “It’s not very jolly.”