After perusing the lame offerings at the local cinemas, I decided to stick with the small-screen genre again this week, and fans of old-fashioned gangster stories and film noir are in for a real treat with a new miniseries on TNT.
“Mob City” is the creation Frank Darabont, who directed such terrific films as “The Green Mile” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” and it’s based upon John Buntin’s book titled “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City.” Set primarily in Los Angeles during the 1940s and ’50s, the series comprises just three two-hour episodes in telling the true (with some Hollywood license) story of Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker’s (Neal McDonough) war with the Mob led by the notorious Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke).
A native of Brooklyn, Cohen was born on Sept. 4, 1913, but he moved to Los Angeles with his widowed mother and his two brothers, and by the time he was 9, he was sent to reform school. During his teen years he participated in illegal boxing matches, and at the age of 15 he moved to Cleveland, where he hoped to begin a career as a professional boxer, but he was never very successful at it. However, the connections he made in Cleveland helped him get into business with some real bad dudes, and he finally ended up in Chicago, where he began his life in organized crime with one of Al Capone’s operations. After doing prison time for his part in killing some gangsters, he finally ended up back in Los Angeles in 1939 to work with Bugsy Siegel (Edward Burns), and this is the time period upon which “Mob City” focuses.
The first episode begins in New York with a flashback to 1925, when Bugsy and two of his buddies steal a truck loaded with liquor. Apparently the purpose of this scene is to show us Bugsy at work before he shows up in Los Angeles because we now flash forward to 1947 and meet Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal), a former Marine who is now a member of the LAPD.
Without revealing too much, I can tell you the first episode establishes Teague as the main character in the show as we see him agree to help a guy with a blackmail plot. As this storyline plays out, we learn how Siegel is involved in the whole thing, and we also find out who some of the other major characters are.
Among the recurring characters are the following: Ned Stax (Milo Ventimiglia), Cohen’s lawyer who also served in the war with Teague; Jasmine Fontaine (Alexa Davalos), the obligatory siren with plenty of skeletons in her closet; Hal Morrison (Jeffrey DeMunn), the LAPD detective who heads up the mob squad; and Fletcher Bowron (Gregory Itzin), the mayor of Los Angeles.
This is a terrific ensemble cast, and each actor makes an invaluable contribution to the show, but Bernthal really nails the part of Teague, and in an online interview Darabont explained why Bernthal was his first choice for the role.
“The first time I worked with Jon, I had the thought in my head, ‘If I ever get to do a noir project, I’m going to want him to play my noir hero. I’m going to want him to play my lead.’ He’s got that very period feel to me. He doesn’t come off as a contemporary guy. Plus, he’s got this tremendously quiet, masculine way about him that’s not forced. It’s not showboat. He’s got this very testosterone kind of masculinity that’s quiet and genuine, and it feels like such a throwback to me, to Robert Mitchum and John Garfield, and actors of an earlier era, who came up in tougher circumstances during the Great Depression and fought in those wars, and just had to go out and get through life, as best they could, without making a big deal out of it. He so reminds me of those guys, and those generations. So for me, it was just a self-evident marriage of a certain kind of story that I wanted to tell and this actor who would be so perfect to tell that story.”
In addition to being a fascinating story about organized crime, perhaps the best thing about “Mob City” is its general aura. The show looks fabulous and captures the 1920s, ’40s, and ’50s perfectly. The streets are often slick with the moisture of a recent rain, the cars are beautiful, the costumes (including the ubiquitous fedoras) are superb, and the sets, especially the bars and restaurants, are exceptional. The writers also manage to achieve a great blend of drama and humor in the dialogue among the characters, and in the background of many scenes is some of the sweetest, smooth and mellow jazz you’ve ever heard.
Darabont decided he wanted to create the series after reading Buntin’s book, and in the online interview he explained why the time period intrigues him.
“Visually, it’s as unique as a science fiction movie because it was such a different world then. I’ve always loved it. I love the clothes. I love the cars. I love the music. It’s a wonderful period to depict. It’s challenging, of course, because L.A. has changed so much, but we’re finding those little corners and those little pockets of the old stuff. Then, thankfully, with some careful digital trickery and effects, we can enhance the era and make it ever more convincing. I love it. I’ve always loved the noir genre because it’s got an air of dangerous stakes and desperation. Everybody’s got an angle, and there are dangerous women. You don’t know if they’re on your side or not. I always have loved that kind of storytelling, and it’s just a pleasure to roll around in it.”
Although the final episode of “Mob City” will air Wednesday at 9 p.m. on TNT, I think the show is much too good to be dropped. It’s a great period piece in the tradition of “The Untouchables,” and if it has any weakness at all it may be that some of the flashback transitions could cause a bit of confusion. Nevertheless, this is another in the increasing examples of just how good television is these days. Give “Mob City” a solid eight and don’t miss it.