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.