Penny Dreadful: City of Angels and the ‘opposite’ of Gothic

There’s a new Penny Dreadful series on the horizon! A departure from the original 2014–2016 series in terms of setting and tone (and casting with one or two exceptions), City of Angels will take place in 1930s Los Angeles. Despite our reservations about the ending of Penny Dreadful season 3, many of us working in horror and the gothic have been excited about this new sequel series for months. And last week the first teaser trailer dropped:

The YouTube trailer page describes City of Angels as a ‘spiritual descendant of the original Penny Dreadful story set in Victorian-era London’. And all in all it feels very Penny Dreadful. Strong female protagonist a la Vanessa Ives? Meet Natalie Dormer’s character Magda, this time literally a demon (not just possessed by one). On-the-nose metaphors about humanity’s ‘inner monsters’? Check: in the teaser Magda explains how ‘all mankind needs to become the monster he truly is, is being told he can’. Visually spectacular supernatural period drama? The sets are lush and colourful, despite the weird sepia filter that’s been thrown over the whole show. Magda gets not one, not two, but six fabulous costume changes in the teaser, two with hats that I need immediately. I’m also excited to see a few Penny Dreadful actors back in new roles—in particular Rory Kinnear, whose performances I found some of the most moving in the original series.

More of this please.

City of Angels once again feels very literary, although it’s drawing from different sources this time around. In the words of Nathan Lane (who plays LAPD officer Lewis Michener), City of Angels is ‘Raymond Chandler meets [The Twilight Zone‘s] Rod Serling. And it’s a refreshing take on the detective genre with supernatural elements’. After last year’s Knives Out reminded me how much I love a good whodunnit, I’m excited to see what a genre shift will bring to the Penny Dreadful universe.

City of Angels and the detective story: hopefully not just another fetishisation of gendered violence.

At the same time, I’m a little wary of the show’s stated politics. John Logan has suggested that he pitched City of Angels to Showtime as a new chapter of the Penny Dreadful universe by clarifying: ‘It’s not Victorian or gothic. It’s opposite, and it’s about history and politics’. I’m going to give Logan the benefit of the doubt here, and assume that he is not suggesting the gothic is apolitical or ahistorical. It is, of course, neither of these things. The gothic is all about history, and is about politics in every sense of the word:

For the Gothic effect to be attained, a tale should combine a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration [… its] historical fears derive from our inability to convince ourselves that we have really escaped from the tyrannies of the past. The price of liberty, as the old saying tells us, is eternal vigilance.

Chris Baldick, ‘Introduction’, in The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, ed. by Chris Baldick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. xi–xxiii (pp. xix, xxii).

‘You take our heart / we take yours.’

From this perspective, the ‘opposite’ of Gothic is exactly what Logan is trying to avoid. Instead, I’d like to assume that Logan is referring to the contemporary conflation between gothic and our (rather romanticised) view of the Victorians’ dark suppressed desires. Given that the Victorians were historically pretty forthright and practical about their desires, and also given that gothic is not originally a Victorian genre, but a late-eighteenth-century one, this is a pretty an ironic association. It is also an increasingly prevalent one. It will be interesting to see whether Logan does actually work gothic themes into the series, intentionally or otherwise. I’m also keen to see how he uses the detective story—another notoriously romanticised genre—to do so. In the meantime, it is useful to note how Logan attempts to distance the politics of the new show from the politics of the old. In an earlier statement, Logan explains:

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels will have a social consciousness and historical awareness that we chose not to explore in the Penny Dreadful London storylines […] We will now be grappling with specific historical and real world political, religious, social and racial issues… As always in the world of Penny Dreadful, there are no heroes or villains in this world, only protagonists and antagonists; complicated and conflicted characters living on the fulcrum of moral choice.

There is a lot to unpack here. In regard to the suggestion that Penny Dreadful’s London chapters lacked ‘a social consciousness and historical awareness’, I’m not sure what show John Logan was watching, but I can only imagine this comes in response to criticism of Penny Dreadful‘s ultimately conservative race and gender politics (I’d like to think it was my criticism, but that would require toxic levels of optimism). I am tentatively excited that Logan is doubling down on politics in City of Angels, and that he highlights racial issues in particular. Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives is spectacular, but Penny Dreadful had a White Saviour problem (and a Token Woman) problem that I’d sooner see City of Angels avoid. For me, a lot will depend on how Magda’s character is used, and how much screen time her character gets in relation to others.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels premieres on 26 April 2020, with SHOWTIME. I will definitely be watching, and will hopefully also be doing some writing about it here on my blog. Stay tuned!

Definitely gothic.

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