MOB CITY Review: Frank Darabont Returns to Television With a Hard-Boiled Drama for TNT

     December 4, 2013

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Since Frank Darabont‘s much-discussed break-up with AMC over The Walking Dead, fans have continued to keep a close eye to where the producer and showrunner would land next.  It didn’t take long for him to strike a deal with TNT to create and develop a series for them based on John Buntin’s book L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City, now called Mob City (formerly L.A. Noir and Lost Angels), which chronicles the true story of the ongoing battle between the police and the mob in the 1940s. Hit the jump for more on the series, and why it might succeed where other mob shows have failed.

mob-city-jon-bernthal-milo-ventimigliaThe mob, especially early to mid-century operations, has been well-chronicled in recent years on TV, to questionable result.  CBS’s Vegas was an admirable offering about white hats and black hats in a 1960s struggle for the town, but was ultimately cancelled after its initial run.  Magic City, on Starz, took place in Miami in 1959 and incorporated the mob into the hotel world (somethingVegas also did), but wasn’t renewed for a third season.  Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s long-running drama about 1920s mobsters in Atlantic City (and New York and Chicago), remains, but it’s a perpetually-under-the-radar show that has never caught the zeitgeist or audience interest like some of HBO’s other marquee dramas. (And let’s not even mention Mob Doctor, shall we?)

Thus, Mob City already has an uphill battle.  But in its favor, like many of these shows, there’s pedigree in the production: Darabont has brought with him a number of former Walking Dead cast members, and the number of recognizable faces is high. Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal), a Marine-turned-police-officer, narrates (and participates in) the battle between mobster Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke) and LAPD chief William “The Boyscout” Parker (Neal McDonough), and the many grey characters in between, including a fixer (Milo Ventimiglia), a gangster (Bugsy Siegel, played by Edward Burns) and of course a femme fatal (Alexa Davalos).

That description should signal that Mob City is about as noir as noir can get, which can be difficult to take seriously in an age when the genre is so over-parodied.  Though some of the dialogue exchanges are brilliant, snappy, and occasionally moving (like one between a comedian — played by Simon Pegg – and Teague), there’s also a feeling someone went through a book of 1950s slang, peppering everything with too many “hey, toots” “wise-guy” and “she’s got spunk!”

mob-city-jon-bernthalThe story opens its first two hours with flashbacks to the 1920s, when gangsters like Cohen and Siegel were just getting started.  Now (in 1947), they run L.A., and there’s a complicated web the develops between the cops and mobsters further with each passing viewing hour.  That web can be a little difficult to understand though, since few on screen speak above a whisper, and everyone grumbles (another noir trait that seems too self-aware at this point).

Mob City is certainly more engaging than AMC’s Low Winter Sun, whose arc and themes are very similar.  But while Mob City‘s beautiful costumes, sets and interlacing narratives are easy to get into, the constant scowling and grumbling leaves the series lacking necessary charm.  It’s actually Pegg, sporting a fantastic American accent, who steals the pilot episode with his asinine comedian character, because he’s punchy, bright and a definite highlight in the gloom.  It’s clear, as Teague looks on at him in a world-weary way, letting him rant about the old days (the show does a great job with exposition, letting some reveals sit long enough that careful viewers can congratulate themselves on later for figuring out), that we’re not supposed to like the comedian.  But he’s the most magnetic character we’ve seen yet.

Fans of noir will probably adore the series, but casual viewers might be turned off by the solemnity of its hard-boiled nature (though there is a little well-placed humor).  Like Boardwalk EmpireMob City seems to struggle with the elusive characteristic of being compelling on top of its period sets, complicated machinations, and intense violence.  But running only six episodes (airing in pairs), the viewing commitment is not large, and the show starts to to pick up more speed and interest by the second hour. Ultimately, it seems Mob City may be worth the trek into a very dark and dirty L.A.

Mob City will premiere with two back-to-back episodes on December 4th at 9 p.m. on TNT.

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