“Mob City,” the new TNT miniseries(*) about cops and crooks in ’40s Los Angeles, actually begins a couple of decades earlier and nearly 3000 miles away. We open in New York in 1925, as a gang takes place involving violins, a baby carriage, Tommy guns and dynamite. The victims dance like marionettes as the bullets tear into them, all the action being presented in slow-motion so we don’t miss a single detail or spurting of blood.
(*) That word means less than it used to these days, as TNT could order another season if the first six episodes do well, in the same way that “Under the Dome” will be back on CBS next year. Then again, TNT is airing these six episodes over three weeks (9 & 10 p.m. each Wednesday) in one of the slowest, least-watched TV periods of the year, which does not suggest a ton of faith in the project.
It’s a gorgeous sequence, shot by a fine director in Frank Darabont. It’s also, like so much of “Mob City,” an exercise in style over substance, and in recreating the feeling of classic hard-boiled crime stories without telling a compelling one of its own. It’s a good imitation of a ’40s film noir, but you’d suspect Darabont, who’s made several movies set in the vicinity of this period (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile,” “The Majestic”) was aiming to do something more than a bar band cover of a classic.
Jon Bernthal, one of several actors Darabont brought over from his time running “The Walking Dead,” stars as Joe Teague, a WWII veteran (like Bernthal’s character in “The Pacific,” Joe fought at Guadalcanal) now working as a detective in the LAPD. Joe is also our narrator, and he begins by explaining – in the same terminology that’s felt trite on “Low Winter Sun” and countless other anti-hero series by this point – that while the cowboy movies he grew up on featured heroes in white hats and villains in black ones, “I live in a world of gray hats.”
Through a mutual friend, Joe gets sucked into the affairs of Hecky Nash (Simon Pegg, doing a decent American accent and having by far the most fun of any actor in the project), a failing comedian looking to make a criminal score before getting the hell out of town.
“This city,” he tells Joe. “So damn beautiful. It’s like a skyful of stars. But only from a distance. Up close, it’s all gutter.”
Hecky’s plan gets Joe mixed up with the most powerful cops and crooks in the city, including incoming police commissioner Bill “The Boy Scout” Parker (Neal McDonough), mob squad boss Hal Morrison (Jeffrey DeMunn from “Walking Dead” and many of Darabont’s films), local crime lord Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke), Cohen’s fixer Ned Stax (Milo Ventimiglia from “Heroes”), Cohen’s boss Bugsy Siegel (Edward Burns) and the unpredictable killer Sid Rothman (Robert Knepper from “Prison Break”).
In their thick suits and hats, most of these actors look the part – and, like Bernthal, many of them have already done time in ’40s stories (McDonough, for instance, in “Band of Brothers,” and Burns in “Saving Private Ryan”) – though they’re successful to varying degrees at acting it. (Ventimiglia in particular comes across as someone playing dress-up, rather than the slick figure of menace he’s meant to be.) As Hecky’s glamorous girlfriend Jasmine, Alexa Davalos is one of the few members of the core cast actively modeling her performance on movies from the period, and while she does a good approximation of a tough-talking dame, she doesn’t necessarily fit alongside what Bernthal and others are doing.
Darabont also favors long dialogue scenes, which should on paper help flesh out the characters and this old world, but which are instead presented as cryptic exchanges between people who know more than the audience and aren”t interested in sharing. And it”s all for naught, as most of the show”s big surprises are anything but. (I can”t imagine anyone being shocked by the reveal at the end of tonight”s second episode, for instance, even though Bernthal and Ventimigilia take forever and a day building up to it.)
Like Darabont, I love the gangster pictures of this era (and ones about the era, like “L.A. Confidential,” which was substantive enough to not feel like a costume party), and “Mob City” looks so good that I may watch it all the way through (TNT only sent out tonight”s episodes in advance) just for the eye candy. Unfortunately, it doesn”t have much else to offer.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org