Tuesday, December 10, 2013

MOB CITY a Dark, Intriguing Place

Article first published as MOB CITY a Dark, Intriguing Place on TheTVKing.

Not long after AMC kicked showrunner Frank Darabont off of The Walking Dead, a show he developed, rumors swirled that he would make a television comeback. For fans of the zombie series or the movies Darabont has made, which include greats like The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, it's with great satisfaction that we tune into his newest creation, Mob City, which premiered this week on TNT.

Like The Walking Dead, Mob City is an experiment. Six episodes are being produced for the first season as TNT tests the waters with something totally unlike its normal slate. Mob City is a period piece, mostly set in the late 1940s with flashbacks to earlier times, that explores the world of crime in Los Angeles. It's a serial drama, weaving many characters together with interesting, twisty plots. It's also done a bit in the noir style, which you don't see a lot of on television today.

Overall, I'd say this experiment works. The first two instllaments (the initial season will air over three weeks in two hour blocks) are very good, introducing us to characters who we quickly come to care about, but aren't always sure of their motivations. There's a healthy level of mystery to the plot that will draw viewers in, even before they decide if they like the program or not.

Mob City is a little slow-paced, but not as much as, say, Boardwalk Empire, another period piece that does decently well over on HBO. There are a few shootouts and dead bodies in the first night alone, with more to come. The danger and threat level, especially for a limited show, is relatively high, even if several of the main characters are based on real people whose ending may be known. At least those historical figures aren't so famous that everyone knows their tale before the show can tell it.

The cast is truly excellent. Darabont keeps a few of his Walking Dead buddies, with Jon Bernthal playing the lead, Joe Teague, a mostly-good cop who has connections to the mob world, Jeffrey DeMunn as Hal Morrison, head of the task force tracking the mob, and Andrew Rothenberg in a recurring part working for Hal. Robert Knepper (Prison Break, Heroes) does what he does best, playing demented villain, while Gregory Itzin (Covert Affairs, 24) tackles a familiar part as a crooked politician. Neal McDonough (Justified, Desperate Housewives) proves he can do hero as well as he has done bad guy in the past, and Milo Ventimiglia (Heroes, Gilmore Girls) meshes well as Joe's war buddy, now working for the other side.

Believe it or not, while those are the most familiar faces to me, that isn't even all of the wonderful actors starring in this show. Edward Burns (Saving Private Ryan) and Jeremy Luke (Don Jon) play infamous mobsters Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen, respectively. Alexa Davalos (Reunion, Angel) is perfect as the token girl in the cast, a strong woman who tempts Joe to cross the line. Jeremy Strong (Zero Dark Thirty), Mekia Cox (Undercovers), Mike Hagerty (Wayne's World), Daniel Roebuck (Lost), Ernie Hudson (Ghost Busters), and comedian Dana Gould also have recurring roles. With such a deep bench, all of them fantastic, there will be no shortage of wonderful character moments, even after a few of them tragically die.

In the first episode, Joe is approached by a stand up comedian named Hecky Nash (Simon Pegg, Shaun of the Dead, Star Trek), who wants Joe to protect him as he tries to blackmail the mob. Joe agrees, but upon learning a key thing about Hecky, which I won't spoil because it takes awhile to come out, turns on him, a fact Joe is not able to reveal to his bosses, even as he tells them everything else. Yet, Joe isn't about to get himself onto the mob's payroll, and they don't appreciate his refusal, thus beginning a delicate dance between the two sides, with Joe in the middle.

I really like the flashback stuff. In episode one, we see the origins of Bugsy and Sid. While their scene doesn't really inform too much in the present storyline, it is pretty cool. Better, the second hour gives us insight into McDonough's William H. Parker, which is much more relevant. Taking that break, giving us the back story, is useful when used sparingly in this manner.

Now, there are a few gratuitous scenes. The aforementioned opening to the pilot, "A Guy Walks Into a Bar," involves some violins and a baby carriage that make the moment memorable, but don't necessarily scream realism. Later, there's a bit with Sid in a confessional booth at a church that seems purposely designed to shock and offend. Maybe these aren't necessary, but they do put off a tone and style that will set Mob City apart, and do fit the comic book-noir mashup that seems to be happening.

Overall, I really enjoyed the first two episodes, and I look forward to seeing what Darabont and his highly talented team will do with the rest. It's definitely already the best series on TNT. Mob City airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET.

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