There are two periods on the TV calendar when a network, panicked over the flop of a program it had high hopes for, can burn it off as quickly as possible. One is the dead zone between the official end of the TV season in late May and the period in mid-June when summer TV begins ramping up. The other is the month of December, when the American TV industry mostly shuts down in favor of the latest rerun of Rudolph or Charlie Brown.
But it’s rare to see a burn-off as overt as the one TNT has foisted on Mob City, Frank Darabont’s follow-up to The Walking Dead. The network ordered six episodes for the first season, possibly hoping lightning would strike twice. (The zombie drama only received a six-episode order for its first season as well.) Now, however, it’s burning those episodes off over three straight weeks in December, airing two every Wednesday until the thing is quietly shuttled off the air. And it’s not even like Mob City is all that bad. It’s just a waste of a great premise and some gorgeous technical work, all in the service of a lagging, barely there drama. It reduces 1940s film noir to its most basic and surface levels—like a holodeck episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, only less entertaining.
Worse, Mob City engages in pointless mystery, sans motivation. Several shocking reveals are meant to change everything viewers know about some of the characters, but it requires the audience to believe that these secrets wouldn’t naturally arise in conversation. The only reason for the characters to act as they do is to keep mysteries from the audience—and by the end of Mob City’s second episode, it sometimes seems as if the only motivation anyone in the cast was given by Darabont (who wrote and directed both episodes) was, “Your character is trying to make sure the audience doesn’t find out what makes him tick.”
Darabont based the series on the book L.A. Noir, a non-fiction account of the history of organized crime in the city, centered on two potentially compelling figures: Mickey Cohen, the gangster who was able to consolidate most mob operations in the city, and William Parker, the police chief who was determined to stop him. Both Cohen (Jeremy Luke) and Parker (Neal McDonough) turn up in the series, but they’re largely supporting characters in a more pointless story—presumably because their conflict is a largely straightforward story that allows little time for extraneous, ambient jazz music. Other historical figures dart around the edges of the story, including Edward Burns as Bugsy Siegel, but Darabont is most interested in pulling the Boardwalk Empire trick of placing historical figures at the edges of a fictional story.
That works on Boardwalk Empire because most of the fictional characters are genuinely intriguing; even the less interesting ones are played by well-chosen actors who make their roles noteworthy through sheer force of will. The lead of Mob City, on the other hand, is Jon Bernthal, playing a cop who opens the pilot with a superfluous voiceover about the history of organized crime, and how the world doesn’t have any white hats or black hats in it, but, rather, gray hats. Despite the trite voiceover, it seems for a bit as if Mob City is trying to play up the disparity between stark reality and stylized fantasy. On the one hand, there’s the reality of life in the demilitarized zone between the LAPD and the mob, and on the other, Bernthal’s character’s ideas of how a Sam Spade type might talk (though it seems unlikely this character would ever think about that). Darabont writes some nice hard-boiled dialogue for a character played by guest star Simon Pegg, playing a comedian running out of time to pay back debts he owes the mob, and there are promising scenes where it seems like the LAPD might use Bernthal’s connection to Pegg to run a larger operation against the mob. Plus, everybody watching the show will know Pegg has a movie career to get back to, and Mob City wrings some interesting tension out of the inevitable.
But once that does happen, the show slowly withers from the need to keep everything from the audience. Milo Ventimiglia turns up as a shady mob lawyer, and he proves even worse at playing a charming scumbag than Bernthal does at playing a guy trapped in an inescapable war. The characters know too many things the viewers don’t, but they barely even talk about them in veiled terms. Instead, they sit and stare and contemplate how cool everything looks with cigarette smoke floating around.
Neither Bernthal nor Ventimiglia—who have been good elsewhere—is particularly well cast here, nor is Alexa Davalos as the obligatory femme fatale. McDonough and Jeffrey DeMunn fare better, seemingly by grinning and pretending they’re in another show. Robert Knepper, meanwhile, has some intriguing moments of menace as one of the gangsters. And the show does look like a million bucks, a fairly skillful adaptation of ’40s noir style to modern TV. But that’s just it: Though Bernthal, Ventimiglia, and Davalos all look their parts, there’s little thought to their characters beyond “detective” and “mobster” and “femme fatale.” Mob City understands the surface of detective stories, but it forgets that Sam Spade, Jake Gittes, and Eddie Valiant all had clear goals to pursue and ironclad mysteries to unravel—and they weren’t keeping anything from the audience just to be dicks.
Created by: Frank Darabont, based on the non-fiction book L.A. Noir by John Buntin
Starring: Jon Bernthal, Milo Ventimiglia, Jeffrey DeMunn, Alexa Davalos, Neal McDonough
Debuts: Wednesday, December 4, at 9 p.m. Eastern on TNT
Format: Hour-long crime drama
Two episodes watched for review