[This is a review of Mob City season 1, episodes 1 & 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
The name Frank Darabont comes with a lot of history, following his successful adaptation of The Walking Dead for AMC, which was, of course, followed by his rather public dismissal from the show and, eventually, his comments regarding said dismissal and those who did the dismissing.
In between leaving zombies behind and having some biting remarks about it, Darabont returned to television to make the '40s-set cops-and-gangsters drama Mob City, bringing along Jon Bernthal (Shane) and Jeffrey DeMunn (Dale) – which, among other things, demonstrated how any lingering hard feelings from his time at AMC did not extend to those he worked closest with.
What's surprising, then, is that, despite having such a recognizable talent behind the camera, and such familiar faces popping up on-screen, TNT has essentially chosen to burn off the first six-episode season, by running it in three two-hour blocks from now until December 18th. Perhaps there were signs of this coming, as the news regarding the series' production and its casting process – which managed to bring in Ed Burns, Neal McDonough, Milo Ventimiglia, and a guest appearance by Simon Pegg – went from a torrent to a trickle, and then hardly a peep was heard until the network announced the premiere date along with its generic new title, replacing L.A. Noir – which was too often confused with the video game L.A. Noire – with Mob City.
The thing is, though, this isn't a series that necessarily deserves to be cast off and shipped to the no-man's-land that is the pre-holiday television schedule. Now that's not to say that Mob City is a misunderstood masterpiece, or that its quality far exceeds its unfortunate timeslot – rather, this is a show that, despite a somewhat clunky and unclear beginning, seems to be up to something that could turn into the kind of entertaining, gritty drama anyone who's read L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City was likely expecting.
The series begins with the kind of prototypical weary voiceover from the central protagonist, Det. Joe Teague (Bernthal), as he describes the three young criminals who would later go on to become legendary gangsters in the City of Angels. In this case, he's talking about Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, and Sid Rothman. And while it opens the series with some loud bursts of violence and bright pyrotechnics, the set-up is, frankly, a little superfluous, considering the way the program then veers into an antiquated discussion of moral gray areas, by pointing out nobody wears white hats or black hats anymore; guys like Joe Teague wear gray hats. Again, parts of the series are clunky – the unnecessary voiceover being one of them – but they don’t completely overshadow the parts that do work right away.
And what works early on is the blackmail plot involving Simon Pegg's down-on-his-luck comedian, Hecky Nash, and the series' apparent femme fatale, Jasmine Fontaine (Alexa Davalos). There's a well-written, deliberately and frustratingly opaque exchange between Nash and Teague that would have served as a much better cold open to the series than the lengthy and excessive intros via voiceover, especially since the show is interested in playing up the conflicting morality of its characters, positioning Joe 'Gray Hat' Teague between the morally bankrupt Bugsy Siegel (Burns) and his crew, and the morally upright Captain Bill 'The Boy Scout' Parker (McDonough) and the men on the L.A.P.D.'s gangster task force.
Early on, Darabont manages to weave all the various characters through the nexus that is Nash, and the damning photographs he has somehow acquired, which are worth $50,000 to Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke). The connections between characters only get thornier after Nash's successful bid to leave Los Angeles and all his debts behind earns him two bullets in the back and one in the face from Det. Teague. As it turns out, Ned Stax (Ventimiglia), Teague's former war buddy and current mobbed-up lawyer for Siegel, set up Nash's introduction to his would-be protector, knowing what part Jasmine Fontaine played in Teague's past and, perhaps, his future.
For his part, Bernthal is an interesting choice as the lead; his coarse everyman quality lends Det. Teague a stony, rough exterior that's part and parcel with his character who is part Sam Spade, part Wendell 'Bud' White. He's a detective who'll kill Nash to protect his ex-wife from a life on the run from a vicious gangster, but Teague's also a "good cop" who won't take a pay-off from that same criminal. As far as moral gray areas go, this one's a doozy, and while Bernthal plays it fairly low-key, letting the bigger performances around him set the tone, Ventimiglia's Ned Stax suffers a bit from laying the flashy sleaze of a powerful mob lawyer on as liberally as he does his hair product. Both characters could benefit from having their edges smoothed out, but with only four more episodes to go, it's tough to see just what level of development can be worked into either one before the end.
Because the show's roster is a mix between real-life and fictional characters, Mob City feels at certain points a bit like a mix of Boardwalk Empire and L.A. Confidential – though it's not quite as gorgeous as the former. Like its mobbed-up brethren, the most interesting characters here are the one's created for the series. And while Bernthal and Ventimiglia are serviceable in their roles, the show benefits most from its supporting cast, especially DeMunn's Det. Hal Morrison, who (along with Pegg) gets the chance to deliver many of the show's best lines.
Ultimately, that's the series' one clear strong suit: Darabont plainly has a knack for writing hardboiled dialogue that doesn't make the characters sound like they're reading from a copy of Sin City. However, while the show sounds like a hardboiled noir, and looks like one too, aside from a few interesting characters, and a suitably twisty plot, Mob City's noir sensibilities wind up feeling like they're just resting on the surface – there's a lack of depth early on that makes the series difficult to endorse entirely.
This is something that could certainly change, as the series cruises through the next four episodes. And because there is some potential in what's already been put on-screen, perhaps that's reason enough to stick with the series to the end.
Mob City continues next Wednesday with 'Red Light' & 'His Banana Majesty' starting @9pm on TNT.