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New 'Penny Dreadful' Set In Los Angeles

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's 1938 in Los Angeles. America's first freeway is about to be built. Throw in a demon, a saint and a Mexican American family, and you have some of the many elements of the TV show "Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels," which premieres tonight on Showtime. NPR's Mandalit del Barco tells us about it.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: This "Penny Dreadful" series is a real mash-up - a murder mystery, a supernatural drama and a somewhat fictionalized history of LA. its lead characters are Tiago Vega, a Mexican American rookie detective, and his OG Jewish partner, played by Nathan Lane. There's also a charismatic radio evangelist, a crooked city councilman, zoot-suited pachucos - oh, and Nazis in LA.

JOHN LOGAN: Look. Our show is set in 1938. It is about 2020 - you know, because the sort of ideas that were in the air now are parallels to what was happening then.

DEL BARCO: John Logan is the show's creator, writer and executive producer. We met him on the set of "Penny Dreadful" before COVID-19. At that time, Logan said he wanted his show to depict Los Angeles terrorized by the monsters of demagoguery, discrimination and gentrification.

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DEL BARCO: To illustrate how the city developed, Logan pulled down a map of 1938 Los Angeles overlaid with today's modern freeways.

LOGAN: And the first thing you notice are the blood-red slashes that are our freeways - the 10, the 405, the 101, the 110 - and how they have divided up what was once a free-form, open city into little areas.

DEL BARCO: Logan said he wanted to show parts of LA rarely depicted on TV, and he did all the research himself. At Melody Ranch studios, where many a Western movie was shot, he showed us elaborate sets. His crew had recreated a Mexican American boulevard in downtown LA and an entire barrio.

LOGAN: This is the heart of our show - is Belvedere Heights, where the Vega family lives. If you look around, it feels sun-baked. It feels poor. It feels desperate. It feels real. You know, this is where the Arroyo Seco is coming - the 110 freeway right here.

DEL BARCO: Right through the middle of this whole community.

LOGAN: Right through the church.

DEL BARCO: The new freeway destroying the barrio is just one of the many subplots. Logan also adds supernatural elements into the mix, as he did with the first "Penny Dreadful" series that featured Frankenstein and Dorian Gray in Victorian London. This time, Logan created a demon named Magda. She saunters around in different guises, whispering in people's ears to cause death and destruction.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PENNY DREADFUL: CITY OF ANGELS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing in Spanish).

DEL BARCO: The fictional Magda has a sister who is an actual Mexican folk saint, la Santa Muerte, who carries spirits away to the afterlife.

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ADRIANA BARRAZA: (As Maria Vega, speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: Actress Adriana Barraza plays Maria, the patriarch of the Vega family, who summons la Santa Muerte for protection.

BARRAZA: I have compassion for (unintelligible) because Santa Muerte is so sad all the time. It's so clear that Magda, her sister is the other side.

DEL BARCO: The sisters touch the lives of almost everyone on the show, including a German American doctor who is a Nazi sympathizer. They also change the destinies of Maria's three sons - a union organizer, a gang member and an LAPD detective.

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BARRAZA: (As Maria Vega) You are the first Chicano detective in the Los Angeles Police Department. You wear that badge proudly.

DEL BARCO: Daniel Zovatto plays Tiago Vega as he investigates murders and gets romantically entangled with a suspect. He also endures the racism of his fellow cops.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PENNY DREADFUL: CITY OF ANGELS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) But a Chicano patrolman is (unintelligible) from a detective (unintelligible) likes it.

DEL BARCO: The fictional drama takes liberties with history. For example, the term Chicano wasn't widely used until the late 1960s. That first freeway didn't actually bulldoze a Latino community. Those subsequent freeways did. Abelardo de la Pena, communications director for the museum LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, says he appreciates the show's spotlight on LA's Latino community. But it bothers him that none of the show's writers or main actors are Mexican American from Los Angeles.

ABELARDO DE LA PENA: It's not that difficult. I mean, we're here. And there's plenty of talent out there that can be tapped into.

JOSE RIVERA: I think that's a very - absolute fair criticism.

DEL BARCO: Puerto Rican playwright Jose Rivera says he wasn't involved with the casting or hiring. He wrote one of the episodes and reviewed all 10 scripts.

RIVERA: To really keep elements of Latino culture that's depicted in the series to seem authentic and not, you know, voyeuristic or exotic.

DEL BARCO: "Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels" has many real and imagined elements. With its fictional monsters, the genre-defying show offers an alternative to the real-life invisible monster currently plaguing the planet.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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