If I had to sum up the first season of Frank Darabont’s Mob City (which wrapped up on TNT and Bravo last night) in one sentence, it would be this: A nice setup. That’s essentially what these six episodes on the L.A. mobsters of the 40s and the cops, both clean and dirty, who went up against them is. It’s the opening act to an epic where the body count will be high and the price the “righteous” must pay will be a heavy one. Darabont has set the stage for what could be one of the most enjoyable crime noir series to ever grace cable television. With a large and recognizable cast, he was able to make this first season feel less like television and more like an event. It’s got class and grit side by side on the screen, never panders and does a great job of removing the rotten taste from our mouths left there by Gangster Squad, the feature covering similar subject matter that stunk up the box office earlier this year. He presents characters with rich back stories that have secrets and skeletons and deamons in their closets…..and those are the good guys. But it’s all really just set up for what’s to come. Thankfully, the set up delivers.
Based on the book L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City by John Buntin, Mob City shows us the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles in 1947. Bugsy Siegel is hard at work trying to build his precious casino in Las Vegas while he and his right hand, Micky Cohen are also maintaining some rocky order in La la land as blackmail for a murder Bugsy might connected to keeps resurfacing. Over at the L.A.P.D., Bill “the boyscout” Parker, a police captain with asperations of becoming chief, is trying to find a way to bring Siegel down and end his reign of power as well as weed out corruption from within his own department. But like most power struggles, the real wars are carried out by the foot soldiers. It’s one foot soldier we focus on throughout the series: Joe Teague (played by Jon Bernthal), a cop who can’t be bought and doesn’t fear death. Joe’s at the heart of a mob hit gone wrong. Because of this, he’s been assigned to Parker’s special squad against organized crime. But Joe’s problems have just begun as actions in his recent past may come back to haunt him and force him to take a different approach to doling out justice. His reasons for his actions are not necessarily selfish but they do lead to a dame that could break your heart. At first glance, this tale might sound familiar and even hokey but it’s anything but. With style that pulls no punches and harkens back to L.A. Confidential, what we get is a well played character study full of gritty, pulpy goodness.
Being a character piece, Darabont gets to put a great deal of actors on display. Although the source material is based in reality and one could easily read up on their history to get the story, the performances of this ensemble cast bring the motivations and actions of these cops and badguys to life. It seems that Darabont went back to his former body of work and handpicked some of the best of the bunch that he’s work with previously. Former Walking Dead cast member Bernthal appears to be right at home as Joe Teague. The role suits him better than Shane ever did. I think this is because, like a lot of actors in this piece, his look and acting style fit better in the classic and classy world of the 40s. He’s a hulking man who says little but when he says something, he means it. Alexa Davolos (who worked for Darabont in The Mist) also has that classic feel as she carries the important distinction of being the only leading lady of the series. Their chemistry is instant on the screen. There’s an uneasiness that can’t be explained but tells you everything you need to know about these two. Add to this solid performances by Ed Burns as Bugsy Siegel, Milo Ventimiglia as his lawyer Ned Stax, Neal McDonough as Bill “The Boyscout” and a ton of great character actors and guest stars and you’ve got a series that dripping with equal parts charm and tenacity. However, of all these fine actors, one stands out among the rest as giving the highlight performance of the show. Robert Knepper is the epitome of evil as Mob Lieutenant Sid Rothman. He’s a cold blooded killer who doesn’t scare. He has a code that’s fucked up but is still there in every action he makes. He’s the badguy but like most great villains, there’s something you find yourself liking about him as you also love hating him. His scenes with Berthal are some of the most tense and interesting of the bunch. Whether their just talking or beating the hell out of each other, the two pull you into their fight like it’s the only thing that matters. If Darabont’s only goal with this first season was to build a world and make you care about the players, he succeeded in spades.
It’s been a rough couple of years for Frank Darabont. With his removal from The Walking Dead, an incident that he’s still not finished dealing with, and the legal battle over the original name of the series, it almost felt like the guy couldn’t catch a break. But that’s all in the past as this series shines through with a brilliant cast and an engaging story that fans should eat up. I was highly satisfied with the first season and hope that this series will return next year with more bloody, pulpy tales to tell. If you missed the series these past few weeks, you owe it to yourself to track this show down and check it 0ut.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!