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TV IS THE NEW CINEMA: LA Noir Crime Drama 'Mob City' Casts a Spell

Thompson on Hollywood By David Chute | Thompson on Hollywood December 10, 2013 at 4:24PM

Genre virtuoso Frank Darabont's "Mob City" is crime drama as a form of popular fantasy, a brooding cops and mobster saga built around a dark love story.
Jon Bernthal and Simon Pegg in "Mob City"
TNT Jon Bernthal and Simon Pegg in "Mob City"

The first thing that made me sit up when I was watching "Mob City" (TNT) was Simon Pegg's American accent, which is perfect -- one of the best ever, even in a TV epoch in which every other U.S. TV show stars a Brit playing a Yank. Pegg is perhaps typecast in a different sense, playing a comedian working the jazz clubs of LA's Central Avenue, the ones the young Clint Eastwood visited to hear Bird.

The other immediately salient feature of this LA cops and mobsters story set in the 1950s is the knee-deep period noir atmosphere, which some critics have complained is the only aspect of the production that creator/showrunner Frank Darabont (who was fired from the successful series "Walking Dead") seems to care deeply about. 

Certainly, the smoke-filled look and melancholy mood (lots of moaning saxophones) are laid on thick, and in broad strokes, as if  purchased readymade and not assembled from scratch. This is far from the amazingly detailed art directional texture of "Boardwalk Empire," which seems to immerse us not in a generic fictional world that refers to a period, but in the period itself.

The comparison is tempting because the cast of characters in "Mob City" overlaps significantly with "Empire." The upper echelons of the LA syndicate in this period include both Ben "Never Call Him Bugsy" Siegel (Edward Burns) and James Ellroy-bete noir Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke). 

The comparison doesn't hold up, though. "Boardwalk" is an historical drama with some heavily fictionalized elements, while "Mob City" is a devoted genre series, a form of popular fantasy, a brooding crime drama built around a dark love story. Darabont is playing variations on familiar tunes, noir standards, and his past work in the horror genre, on TV and in films, has shown us that he has an A-level flair for that sort of thing.

A fair amount of work that has been done in the first two episodes to paint the show's central character, "Dead"-veteran Jon Bernthal's LAPD detective Joe Teague, as a classic cable show anti-hero. But when Teague slips bulging envelopes of cash into his coat pocket, or guns down supposed team members without flinching, I suspect the Vic Mackey and "Low Winter Sun" echoes are acts of misdirection. Teague harbors still-amorphous motives for doing these bad things. The point is how different they are from those of stereotyped sleazy cops on the take.

Bernthal is an effectively bummed-out charismatic man of mystery, and as Joe's backstory gets filled in, he could turn out to be a key player in the overriding narrative, the anti-gang crusade of "boy scout" Police Chief William Parker (Neal McDonough), while at the same remaining ambiguous and compromised enough to be dramatically interesting. That would be a neat trick if Darabont can pull it off. For that alone "Mob City" seems worth following a while longer. 

This article is related to: TV, TV Reviews, TV IS THE NEW CINEMA, Television

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.