Set in Victorian London, Showtime’s Penny Dreadful blends gothic horror and the mythologies of Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, vampires and werewolves into one campy thrilling series. After a somewhat abrupt ending in 2016, Penny Dreadful was redesigned and repackaged as City of Angels. In its new iteration, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, which premiered in April 2020, is less horror and more film noir (an obvious reference point is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown). Its set design, atmosphere, costume, hair and makeup are all meticulously constructed and work beautifully to transport viewers to 1938 Los Angeles.
At the center of the main story is a Chicano family residing in the working-class neighborhood of Belvedere Heights and their everyday experiences of racism and police brutality. On the first episode, “Santa Muerte”, viewers meet Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto), his two brothers, sister and mother as they come together to celebrate that Tiago is set to become the first Chicano detective of the LAPD.
On the one hand, that a Chicano family takes center stage is to be commended considering the overall lack of Latinx representation onscreen. Hollywood has been responsible for erasing the presence of Chicanos and Mexicans in general from the history of Los Angeles. On the other hand, the approach to Chicano culture feels shallow.
City of Angels uses the mythology of Santa Muerte (Holy Death) and its iconography of skeletons and skulls to add an element of the supernatural that is otherwise missing from this version of Penny Dreadful. But while the monsters of the original series are nothing but silly myths ingrained in the popular imaginary, Santa Muerte is an important folkloric and religious figure that offers comfort to many people of Mexican descent. And yet, here she is reduced to being a creepy deity.
A similar missed opportunity is the oversimplification of Pachuco culture. When the youngest and most defiant member of the Vega family, Mateo (Johnathan Nieves), joins a group of Pachucos, City of Angels offers a glimpse into this vibrant subculture of Mexican-American youths, but it never digs too deep. If anything, it leans into the common stereotype of Pachucos as unruly gang members involved in petty theft and other crimes.
As historian Luis Alvarez notes in his 2008 book, The Power of the Zoot (2008), Pachucos have a rich history that has more to do with their rebellious and flamboyant sartorial choices than with their alleged criminality. Their exaggerated style of fashion served to parody bourgeois values and was indeed confrontational in order “to make their lives more livable and meaningful” in the face of racial injustices and socioeconomic disparities (75). Considering that City of Angels takes place five years before the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, the series should have taken more time to develop these characters and their culture in order to make a sharper point about the systemic persecution and oppression Mexicans have had to endure from white America.
To be fair, the superficial approach to Chicano and Pachuco culture has more to do with an overload of storylines and characters than with a lack of knowledge or interest (many of the show’s producers, directors and writers are Latinx). City of Angels never reaches the thrilling heights of Penny Dreadful because it’s too unfocused and distracted with its meandering plots that never go anywhere, or are altogether forgotten, and the myriad of unnecessary characters that drag the main story.
In addition to the Vega family, there’s Santa Muerte’s sister (an excellent Natalie Dormer), a sort of succubus seeking to wreak havoc in Los Angeles, the Jewish detective Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane) and his covert operation to unmask the city’s Nazis, the Nazi agents that collude with a local politician, Councilman Townsend (a perfectly smug Michael Gladis), to build a freeway and shape the city’s future, an evangelical religious group led by the charismatic Sister Molly (Kerry Bishé) and her sinister mother, and so on. There are too many elements that never add up to a cohesive or entertaining whole.
But if viewers can get past all of these elements, there’s one captivating storyline that’s the beating heart of City of Angels and makes it worth watching: how the construction of a freeway system led to the displacement of Mexicans and other minorities and resulted in a racially and ethnically segregated Los Angeles.
As historian Gilbert Estrada points out in his 2005 article, “If You Build It, They Will Move“, the freeway system worked as a form of social engineering. Mexican properties were routinely seized and appropriated “in order to accommodate urban-renewal projects” (289). Freeways became a symbol of progress for white people at the expense of minorities (ibid: 293).
On the final scene of the final episode, “Day of the Dead”, detective Tiago and his partner Lewis stand together with the Belvedere Heights residents as they witness the destruction of their neighborhood to make way for new roads. Tiago bitterly notes: “It’s not just a freeway, it’s population control. You cut off the Chicanos with a barrier of concrete and steel. You put them in the ghetto. And then you put up another freeway around the coloreds and then the Jews and then the Chinese. They’re not building roads, they’re building walls.” The dialogue may come across as heavy-handed, but it is nonetheless effective for how it resonates with the present.
In an interview with the New York Times, creator John Logan admits that he intended City of Angels to mirror our current times, noting: “Even though our show is set in 1938, it has to be about 2020 or it has no reason to exist.” City of Angels concludes that not much has changed. Racism, bigotry, xenophobia and political demagoguery are all persistent ideologies deeply embedded in the fabric of American society.
The freeway storyline is fascinating enough that I hope that if Showtime renews City of Angels for a second season, Logan and his team can narrow and sharpen their focus to tell a more powerful story about how structural inequalities have shaped the city of Los Angeles – a city that has developed a convenient mythology around itself as a liberal haven where everyone can make and remake themselves into who they want to be, thus contributing to the erasure of its history and troubled past.
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