Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (2020) Goes DARK


As Frock Flicks’ resident ElderGoth, I adored the original Penny Dreadful on Showtime. It was my gothic Victorian fantasy wet dream! I knew the not-at-all-sequel-just-a-thematic-second-edition Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (2020) would be spooky and dark with entirely different characters and a totally different setting. But I was NOT prepared for how fucking horrific it is in just the first episode! I don’t mean blood ‘n guts gruesome, but super nihilist with every possible bad thing happening and the world of the show going to hell all in 60 minutes.

So, um, I can’t say I recommend it because I didn’t make it to the second episode yet! As of this post, four episodes have aired, and they’re sitting on my DVR waiting until perhaps a few months after this pandemic is over and I’m not feeling quite so fragile. I’m not positive that I would have enjoyed the super-fucking-dark tone of this show in the the Before Times, but right now, whoa, it’s too much.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (2020)

Daniel Zovatto plays Tiago Vega, the first Chicano detective in L.A., & Nathan Lane is his partner. Obligatory nice suits & cars.

All that said, I can see what showrunner John Logan (who created the original Penny Dreadful) was going for. The storylines are a parable for our current times circa 2016-2019 in America, using historical facts of Los Angeles 1938 as a parallel, injected with a fat dose of supernatural evil. I get it, it’s pretty well done, I just don’t think I want it right now. The performances are solid, and the historical setting is beautifully created (especially the vignettes of a ’30s Chicano neighborhood), so I feel the show is worth mentioning. If you have the headspace for race war, Nazis, and demonic possession, rock on with City of Angels.


Costumes in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (2020)

I’m just going to stick with an overview of the costumes, designed by Christie Wittenborn. She doesn’t have any historical work on her resume, but she’s done a little press for this series. One of the central characters is Natalie Dormer, who plays an evil shapeshifting demon, and she is literally playing four different people with four different looks and wardrobes! She’s barely recognizable in some of them, so props to everyone involved for the complete transformation.

There’s blond, blue-eyed, Elsa, a German immigrant with a young son. In a Saks lookbook, Wittenborn said, “I used pastels to highlight the innocence of this persona of Magda’s. There was a romanticism in her design with elements like butterfly sleeves and flutter skirts.”

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (2020)

Sweet lavender dress with pintucks & lace collar.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (2020)

Another softly colored dress with sweet accents.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (2020)

A little more color for the beach, but still very light, breezy, innocent.

There’s the conniving Alex, a political aide to an aggressive L.A. councilman. Natalie Dormer wore a mouthpiece for this character, and she insisted on being filmed from the worst angles, saying to Variety:

“A couple of the cast walked past me a few times before they realized it was me, when they hadn’t ‘met’ Alex yet. But as an actress, playing a character like that is so liberating because there’s absolutely no vanity attached. It’s like I would almost say to the camera operator, ‘What’s the worst angle? Put it in the worst, first.’”

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (2020)

She looks so dorky in this incarnation! It’s hilarious & creepy because the character is a little shit.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (2020)

The costume is super bland, but the attention to detail is there — look at how the stockings are baggy around the ankles! That, combined with the longer skirt, makes her look dumpy.

At some point, the show introduces Rio, who’s involved in the Mexican-American Pachuco scene.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (2020)

Only Magda, the actual demon, is not a historical character, although the strong shoulders of her black gown have a subtle 1940s flair. Costume designer reserved the color black for Magda’s demonic wardrobe, and she said of this dress in Variety: “I wanted her long black dress to have a liquefied, transformative feeling as she glides in and out of each character.”

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (2020)

The striking black suit she wears also has somewhat ’40s lines, emphasizing her otherworldliness by being a touch ahead of contemporary fashion.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (2020)

This hat was made by Western Costume Co.

Natalie Dormer was very appreciative of the costumer’s work on these very different wardrobes. She told EW:

“Costumes help because the way they all move. If you’re standing in a gorgeous Zoot suit, like Rio, you stand in a very particular way in contrast to Alex, who’s standing in an awful tweed, masculine, uncomfortable piece. Your physicality changes immediately, and [the characters] all move differently. You find a voice and a different placement in your mouth, whether it’s an accent or tone. Alex talks down here in her throat and [is] guttural. Rio is in her chest, and Elsa is up here in her nose. There is a process that happens in that hour-and-a-half, two hours when you’re sitting in the hair-and-makeup chair than is just about what is physically being done to you; you’re getting your brain into it, as well. The crew was extremely supportive in those transitions [from character to character] when I had to do them, when I did have to play two characters in one day and sit in the hair-and-makeup chair for three hours in between the process. It’s acting in its grassroots. I remember it said in [the script for] John’s pilot episode, “We meet Alex and we meet Elsa. This is not prosthetics. This is not trickery. This is acting,” with capital letters and underlined. When an actor reads that, that’s a dream to see that written down.”


Are you up for Penny Dreadful: City of Angels? If so, report back to us!


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

11 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    After the pandemic ends and I pick up my streaming services.

  2. thedementedfairy

    looks intriguing. I get you on programme content right now though- I don’t mind the odd murder mystery but the missus us telling me off for ordering ‘twee’ DVDs. Wotevva!

  3. Shashwat

    Magda’s look is so striking(the demon-ness? of course).
    Is that form fitting black dress made of leather?There is some serious couture level sleekness and fluidity in the skirt,but the similar coloured top looks more like leather than silk.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      That dress is pleather & the costume designer describes it in more detail in the Variety link above. It’s really amazing on screen & suits the character perfectly!

      • CatnipTARDIS

        Wow, really? Having been watching the show, I would have guessed the skirt portion was some sort of heavyweight or underlined spandex; I wouldn’t expect pleather to have that level of fluidity and soft ripples. …It must have been hot as …well, hell in that thing.

  4. Frannie Germeshausen

    Started watching. Within 5 minutes, it was too much. We were both wanting to hide under the bed and sob so gave up, despite the intense appeal of LA in the 30s.

  5. Nzie

    I keep seeing ads and it looks intriguing but also far too bleak for me, certainly right now, and possibly ever. The costumes do look great though on Natalie Dormer’s characters.

  6. Charity

    I saw the first episode and will watch the rest, but admittedly I’m mostly there to see Dormer pull off a variety of roles as the demon. It’s amazing how just a different hairstyle and outfit can either make you gorgeous or make even a super hottie like her look… dumpy. o.O suddenly is worried about the clothes in her closet

  7. Hooley

    The show is not too much for me and is free with our cable package, so we are watching it regularly. I love it, but then “Red Harvest” is my favorite Dashiell Hammett book. The clothing gets even better — a dance with many zoot suits, men’s suiting in gangster stripes, a young charismatic radio female evangelist with a “hide myself” wardrobe. The multiple ethnicities and classes in the show are reflected in every piece. Plus Brent Spinner in a uniform!

  8. Liz Myrick

    Penny Dreadful is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and it will be hard to not compare this. Also like most of you, I’m not in the mood for dark material right now, but will definitely check it out eventually. The late Victorian era is much more appealing to me than 30s LA and I will really miss Eva Greene, but it will be interesting to see what they do with Latino/Mexican mythology.
    I hate the storyline in PD where a white guy coopted Native American myth so I hope they don’t do that here. A little concerned about ‘Rio’- I know Dormer’s character is a shapeshifter but it looks like she’s using darker makeup to look Hispanic, and I think in that case another actress would be more appropriate. I’m not really a fan of the demon dress- it definitely looks too much like a Star Wars Sith get up to fit either 30s or 40s fashion, though the coat is very nice. I know she’s a demon, but I feel like something creepy and period appropriate would have been very easy. I’m not an expert on fabrics of that period, but the ‘liquid’ aspect makes it look like goth clubwear material. I’m not really a fan of “black=evil” in costuming because it’s not terribly creative (you’d think a demon would come up with something more interesting), but that’s not a huge drawback.
    The librarian character looks really interesting!