In the opening scenes of TNT's Mob City, we were reminded for probably the bajillionth time in our lives that in the olden days, the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats. But in the 1940s, gray hats were the hot fashion trend, because everyone was crooked to some degree—it was just a matter of determining how far they were bent. That's the crux of Mob City, that everyone is scrambling for an opportunity to line their jacket pockets with cheddar at the expense of morality, even at the risk of getting so wrapped up in the world of organized crime that they become shells of their former selves. And of course there are the dames! Those darned dames!
Mob City is the new baby of Frank Darabont, the ousted co-creator of AMC's The Walking Dead, and sadly, the vision that's brought to life in Mob City is not his. Instead, it belongs to the film noir legends of decades past. The series robs the graves of the genre's classics so hard that even the eggs in your fridge will be hard-boiled by the time you've reached the first commercial break.
Tonight's opening two hours—"A Guy Walks Into a Bar" and "Reason to Kill a Man"—were one big cloud of secondhand smoke and lingering shots of big-band performances in nightclubs, as if Darabont bought a copy of Film Noir for Dummies and ran down the checklist one item a time. People spoke in an old-timey style (something about a Jake?) while their faces are half shadowed, sexy women with outrageous names (Jasmine Fontaine) dangled cigarettes from their fingers and shot daggers from their eyes, and voiceover told us just how much everything back then was a pain in the ass. And that's because Mob City is film noir to the core. Mob City's blood runs black and white. Mob City has Stage IV lung cancer and cirrhosis of the liver, it's that noir. Mob City only drinks Pinot Noir. Mob City's favorite animal is the Noir-wahl. Noir, noir, noir.
But what Darabont has created is certainly beautiful to look at. There's something just right about series' visuals, which makes it palatable and perfectly suited to what the show wants to accomplish. As I said in my preview of the series, Mob City doesn't really add anything to the gangster cannon, so it felt compelled to go hardcore noir. But given that the series' original title was L.A. Noir, is it really a surprise that it ripping off/paying homage to the classics by wearing the skin of its influences?
That atmosphere was quite successful in the first episode, "A Guy Walks Into a Bar"—which was by far the better half of the two-episode debut. Our primary Gray Hat was former Marine and current cop Joe Teague (The Walking Dead's Jon Bernthal, who's once again playing an asshole). Teague spent the series opener helping stand-up comic Hecky Nash (guest-star Simon Pegg a.k.a. Shaun of Shaun of the Dead) blackmail a gangster, and the slow burn worked in large part because it was interesting to see Teague play both sides of the law and be fifty shades of gray. He agreed to pin down mobsters for the LAPD's new Mob Squad while also promising Hecky he'd act as Hecky's muscle, and in the end, he did neither. He shot Hecky after the deal went down and spun a tale about being clueless for the cops. I guess it was supposed to be a twist at the end of the episode when it was revealed that he'd been working for the mob all along, but the more compelling part of the story was that the question of Teague's motivation in partnering up with the blacker hats and giving back the fifty grand that we thought was his to keep.
Unfortunately that motivation was revealed to be love, or ex-love, in the boring and biteless second episode. I can barely tell you what "Reason to Kill a Man" was about, because once the focus shifted away from Teague and toward the rest of the characters, things got a lot less interesting. Watching Robert Knepper (T-Bag!) deliver a couple plates of Psghetti to some mobsters before lighting them up with a couple pistols while the victims' bodies shook and jerked—and then handing the parmesan to a customer who mistook him for a waiter—was great, but otherwise, the episode mostly rambled. And its attempt at a big "twist" was merely a wrinkle: Teague's obsession with Hecky's old lady, and his reason for taking the job with Hecky, stems from their past as a married couple. But if that wasn't obvious to you half an hour before it was revealed, then please allow me to sell you these deeds to some brand-new property on the moon.
However: I do like Mob City's cast a whole lot, and after spending a few seasons defending Shane on The Walking Dead from the unreasonable people of #TeamRick, it's nice to see Bernthal back on my TV screen. He's less of an actor in Mob City than he is a presence, which is exactly the type of performance you want for his character. Jeffrey DeMunn, another Walking Dead alum (he played Dale) who followed Darabont over to TNT, is great as Hal Morrison, head of the Mob Squad. But it's Jeremy Strong (The Good Wife, pictured below with the requisite dangling cigarette) as Mob Squad-member Mike Hendry who's my early favorite for best character in the series. "He found me under a rock," Mike said without an ounce of sarcasm and with a whole gallon of FU when Teague asked how the team had been assembled.
One thing the show lacked in its first two episodes was a compelling villain. Micky Cohen should be that man—he's the big mob guy, after all—but so far, all I want to do is dress him up in doll clothes and snuggle with him. He just doesn't seem like a bad dude. In fact, he's kind of nice? I dunno, I'm scared of his henchmen, and Bugsy Siegel (Ed Burns) seems like he means business, but right now the only characters I don't want to meet in a dark alley are Joe Teague and the chief of police, Billy the Boy Scout (Neal McDounough). If Mob City is going to be a tale about gangsters and cops and good guys vs. bad guys, don't we need some bad guys? I don't really see any bad guys yet, and that takes a big bite out of the series' dramatic impact.
So Mob City isn't the television event I was hoping it would be. The disparity between the first two episodes has me worried about the future of the series, and because I am crippled by pessimism, I'm guessing the series will ultimately resemble "Reason to Kill a Man" more than the superior "A Guy Walks Into a Bar." And in the end, it might be very short, one-and-done minieries. TNT scheduled it to premiere in December, and then condensed its run to three weeks with two episodes airing every Wednesday. That's not a good sign. But it may be all we really want from this show.
– Boom! Bang! Face right into the pasta! That's a mobster's death. That's how I want to go out when I die... asphyxiated by a mouth full-a meatball.
– All those nightclub singing scenes... do we really need those?
– Ahhh, the 1940s, where no woman was unattractive and all them were insatiable horndogs.
– I don't know why, but I was unreasonably excited to see Milo Ventimiglia on television again. And I didn't even like Heroes.
AIRED ON 12/18/2013
Season 1 : Episode 6