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TV Review: Mob City

Mob City
TNT really wants you to know that this show was brought to you by the same guy who made The Walking Dead

The late 40's era of organized crime has become an indelible part of the American psyche. The scene in Los Angeles, with larger-than-life characters like Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen, is so steeped in mythology that separating fact from fiction is virtually impossible. It is fitting, then, that Frank Darabont's Mob City, the premiere season of which just concluded last night on TNT, puts a fictional spin on true stories such as the birth of Internal Affairs, the famously unsolved assassination of Bugsy Siegel, and the rise of Mickey Cohen's criminal empire. Does Mob City revive interest in these American legends, or is it a tired rehash of film noire clichés?

Told in the language of noire--replete with hard-boiled dialogue, high-contrast lighting, irony-laced narration, murky anti-heroes, femme fatales, and an inexhaustable supply of cigarettes--this is a show that gluttonously embraces its genre. This is simultaneously one of its greatest strengths and one of its greatest weaknesses. On the one hand, those of us nostalgic for this kind of thing--fans of James Ellroy and Dashiell Hammett, Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall--eat this kind of thing up, because it has become a rare treat these days. There is a huge universe of material to explore, and this could fill a festering pop culture vaccuum through the television medium if the show goes forward.

Mob City
No, he's not shooting a zombie

On the other hand, there are few things about Mob City that actually feel new or innovative. It dances on the edge of mediocrity as the entire tale seems written according to a checklist of film noire staples. There's the assassination in an Italian restaurant, the good police captain and the corrupt police captain coming head-to-head, the interrogation of the unflappable femme fatale, the mobster dressing up as a cop to hit a key witness in his safehouse, the shady meeting in the dead of night by an oil field in which someone winds up shot in the back, the hero saying goodbye to his love on a train platform, etc., all of which have been done before--and done better--in notable films like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Untouchables, and L.A. Confidential.

Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find more beautiful cinematography anywhere else on television. The camera work is subtle, but combined with the intense lighting, the period costumes, the wonderful set designs, and meticulously-crafted editing, it becomes a work of art. The appropriately jazzy soundtrack also helps, only occasionally getting carried away with itself but for the most part matching the tone perfectly.

Mob City
Knepper is one of those actors who just doesn't get the credit he deserves

Even more impressive, though, is the casting. While Ed Burns' Bugsy is probably the most inspired casting decision, it is Robert Knepper and Alexa Davalos who steal the show as the deliciously psychopathic Sid Rothman and the sultry bombshell Jasmine Fontaine. The Walking Dead alum Jon Bernthal, who certainly looks the part of a gritty noire detective, plays the morally ambiguous protagonist, Joe Teague, and his former costar and Darabont regular Jeffrey DeMunn plays his white hat mentor/friend Hal Morrison. Rounding out the cast are Gregory Itzin as the troubled mayor, Milo Ventimiglia as Siegel's fix-it guy and Teague's former brother-in-arms, Neal McDonough as the clean-cut officer William Parker, Ernie Hudson as the owner of the jazz club that finds itself caught in the middle of everything, Jeremy Luke as Mickey Cohen, Patrick Fischler as Meyer Lansky, and Simon Pegg (sporting a difficult-to-get-used-to American accent) as a comedian who thinks he can blackmail millions from the mob and get away clean. This remarkable ensemble carries the show through its sluggish parts, and it is hard to understate the sheer volume of acting talent it throws around. If the show continues into a second season, matching this precedent will be one of the most difficult things it must do.

Like a good, slow jazz number, Mob City is deceptively simple and meticulous, hiding multiple layers of complexity in subtle, seemingly irrelevant plot beats. Impatient viewers will be turned off by this, but people who stick with it through the first two episodes will be rewarded with twists that make a second viewing all but mandatory. There are also a few good action set-pieces--including a memorable shootout at a carousel--that don't show themselves until all the pieces have been carefully arranged. This is a show that unravels its plot very carefully and deliberately, even when it seems like the plot is dragging its heels, and the plot winds up being consistent, complex, and compelling.

Mob City
Patience pays off

Still, there's a pervasive lack of self-awareness running through the entire show, which gives it an air of over-seriousness. Dialogue that should be entertaining in its cleverness comes off as scholcky when delivered by the relatively joyless Bernthal. The reason Bogart is such an iconic noire hero is the way he seemed to always be enjoying himself, and that attribute is greatly lacking in Mob City. Six hours of such coldness can get tiring, and a little lightness would go a long way to making the show more enjoyable.

The first five episodes build up to an impressive climax, but it gets derailed in the final hour by a series of scenes that are obvious attempts to set up a second season. While I sincerely want to see a second season, I feel like the tale being told throughout the first would have been stronger had it remained self-contained.

Ultimately, though, I have to say that Mob City is very intelligent television with a lot of promise. Its production values are top-notch, the writing is excellent, and the acting will blow you away. There's some amazing filmmaking going on, even as Darabont treads over a lot of well-worn material. While the pacing is too methodical for its own good, the plot is full of surprises and epic moments that are even stronger upon multiple rewatches. The characters are all deep and interesting, and you won't find a more gorgeously shot show anywhere on television. It is a little too dark and gritty, even for a noire, but fans of the genre will not be disappointed.


A bit slow and cliché, but well worth it for fans of noire.

-e. magill 12/19/2013

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