December 5, 2013

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “Mob City”


MOB CITY:  Wednesday 9PM on TNT

As a writer and director, Frank Darabont has never been in a hurry.  His The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Majestic and The Mist all run over 2 hours (Green Mile is over 3), and his initial season of The Walking Dead had as measured a pace as any thriller about flesh-eating zombies could.  Sometimes that patience pays off, as it did in Shawshank, and when Darabont detonates a well-planted plot twist about an hour into his new limited series MOB CITY.  But an hour later, when what appears meant as a major revelation to conclude the first two-hour installment turns out to be something we’d all figured out long before, Darabont comes off as so stuck in his own head that he’s underestimated his own viewers, and his pacing breeds impatience.

Darabont was famously fired off of Walking Dead midway through its second season–without any detriment to the blockbuster’s ratings–and these days he’s practically outfitted in “I Created The Biggest Hit On Television and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt” garb.  He’s taken his Walking Dead co-star Jon Bernthal with him (there was a bit of a fuss when it appeared that he and TNT deliberately let it be known that Bernthal would be on their show early enough so that it would spoil his character’s Walking Dead death, meant to be a shock) and changed genres to the mean streets of film noir.  More specifically, to the post-World War II Los Angeles territory of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential and other novels, where the gangsters are murderous thugs and most of the cops are at least as bad.

As in L.A. Confidential (and Gangster Squad from earlier this year), the LAPD is on the trail of Bugsy Siegel (Edward Burns, managing to be even less Jewish in the role than Warren Beatty was) and Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke).  Straight-arrow police chief William H. Parker (Neal McDonough) has organized a squad of tough guys under the direction of Detective Hal Morrison (Jeffrey DeMunn, another Walking Dead alumnus) to take them down, and as we join the action, they’ve brought in Robbery/Homicide Detective Joe Teague (Bernthal), who’s been asked by a burlesque comic named Hecky Nash (Simon Pegg) to serve as bodyguard when he blackmails Siegel for $50,000.  What neither the cops nor the mobsters know is that Teague has ties not only to Siegel’s smooth lawyer middleman Ned Stax (Milo Ventimiglia), but to Jasmine Fontaine (Alexa Davalos), Hecky’s current girlfriend, Teague’s ex-wife and at the center of the blackmail plot.  This has fatal results for Hecky, and Teague’s shooting of the comic under his protection, which is the twist at the end of Hour 1, ignites the rest of the story.

Morally ambiguous cops and period gangsters aren’t anything new on TV these days, let alone in movies, and Mob City ranks around midway in their line.  It’s less cartoonish than the silly Gangster Squad, but has all the pacing issues of Boardwalk Empire with none of that show’s thematic richness and depth.  (And even though Mob City is a handsomely produced show in its neon-and-noir way, it pales next to the painstaking, distinctive visual detail of Boardwalk.)  Two hours into its six hour run (the intention is for it to be renewed in more conventional series form in success), the characters are thin at best.  Bernthal has the right look for a neo-Bogartian role, but the flat humorlessness that worked for him on Walking Dead, where he was the antagonist, make him a less than engaging hero, even a dark one.  Davalos, in the Bette Davis role, looks great, but so far has had little more to do than snap out hard-boiled banter.  The other cops and bad guys are mere types.  (Rob Knepper, wearing his psycho hat, is one of Bugsy’s henchmen.)  It’s a shame that Pegg didn’t survive the first hour, since his was the only character who came to any kind of independent life.

Mob City is put together with conviction, but it’s on a path laid down by too many classics over too many decades.  A new arrival in this arena needs to bring something to the party besides the same old jazz bands, fedoras, vintage revolvers and “Of all the gin joints…” romantic gloom.  Darabont’s deliberate, familiar ride down this memory lane just reminds us that we’ve seen it all before.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."