“Mob City,” the miniseries premiering on TNT this Wednesday, December 4th at 9pm, is set in a 1940s Los Angeles so stylistically noir it resembles “Sin City” more than any actual time and place. It’s so noir that it starts off with a character intoning about how you used to be able to tell the bad guys from the good guys in westerns by the color of the hats they wore, but “in real life, it’s different.” We’ve just watched a young Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky and a gangster pal of theirs, Sid Rothmen, Tommy gun down some rivals in a flashback, and in another one to follow we’ll see their main foe on the side of law and order, William H. Parker, commit an act of equally showy badassery. The only difference between the good and bad guys here is that the bad guys tend to dress a little better.
“Mob City” is the creation of Frank Darabont, the director of “The Mist” and “The Shawshank Redemption” who had the misfortune of getting kicked off his last TV project, “The Walking Dead,” only to see it go on to even greater success without him on board. Darabont’s worked in television before, as a writer on “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” and “Tales from the Crypt,” but he’s a movie guy at heart, tending to think big even when working on the small screen. In the pilot of “The Walking Dead,” which he helmed, he summoned a powerful quality of unsettling, cavernous silence. More impressively expansive abandoned landscapes have turned up in films like “I Am Legend” and “28 Days Later,” but the world of that first episode of the AMC zombie series rang unmistakably, spookily hollow — emptied out, the only moving things left not ones you’d want to come across.
“Mob City” also comes across as larger than life and a little empty, maybe because the tropes it’s built on are so well worn they’re almost impossible to read as anything other than parody. It lives in a land of cinema — the neon light of the divey hotel, the hardboiled voice-over, the sharp suits and dark-eyed dames and dialogue that would shatter at the slightest wink. (“Look, you don’t know me — why ruin a good thing?” mutters someone to a persistent type at a bar.) But there’s no winking to be found in the two of the six total episodes of the miniseries I’ve seen, just a deep and mostly enjoyable reveling in genre details. And why not? For all that it’s on a fancier network and takes itself more seriously, “Boardwalk Empire” often feels like an excuse for a terrific group of character actors to put on period clothing and chew the old-fashioned scenery. “Mob City” does the same, with less substance but a more palpable feeling of pleasure in itself. Its characters may be fueled by post-war anxiety or distress, but the series itself is powered by a sense of cool.
Jon Bernthal, himself a “Walking Dead” alum, is our entree into the war between the gangsters and the cops being chronicled in “Mob City,” playing Joe Teague, a Marine turned at least somewhat dirty cop. Teague is contacted by Hecky Nash (Simon Pegg, nicely weaselly in a serious role), a stand-up comedian with a potentially dangerous plan to make some cash and get out of town.
Nash brings Teague into contact with both sides of the law, as he’s got his hands on evidence valuable both to the gangsters like Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke) and Siegel (Edward Burns) and to LAPD chief Parker (Neal McDonough) and his crew. Then there’s Alexa Davalos as a woman who either is or is in trouble and Milo Ventimiglia as Teague’s old war buddy turned mob lawyer Ned Stax. They’re all entangled in a knotty affair involving backstories and motivations not yet revealed, and that don’t really seem all that important. “I need a pal.” “Get a dog.” If that exchange, made gruffly in the dramatically lit Bunny’s Jungle Club, could make you smile, then “Mob City” should go down easy.