2013 has been the year of the dark, gritty, antihero-driven drama. Some have knocked it out of the park (Hannibal, Ray Donovan) others have struck out swinging (The Bridge, Low Winter Sun). At this point in the year, I think we can all agree that we’ve had enough of this style of hour-long drama.
Well, change of plans.
TNT’s long-awaited series Mob City has finally debuted and we’re going to need to make room in our pop culture stomachs for one more gritty, dark drama because it looks like the best in the class of 2013.
The three-part miniseries (remember when those were all the rage?) created and crafted by Frank Darabont, the man behind The Walking Dead and Shawshank Redemption, is dark, violent and intense like it’s 2013 classmates. Yet, at its core, Mob City is distinctly different from its contemporaries. There’s no episodic feel to the series, it has a cinematic swagger to it as if it were one, six-hour film chopped into three separate installments. It has more polish, the correct ratio of sizzle to steak and a cast to die for.
Tonight, we begin with episodes entitled, “A Man Walks into a Bar” and “Reason To Kill a Man.” In “A Man Walks into a Bar” we meet our “hero” Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal aka Shane from The Walking Dead) an LAPD cop and former WWII vet who is approached at a local jazz club by washed-up comedian Hecky Nash (Simon Pegg). Nash is in need of some muscle for a blackmail scheme he’s pulling on the mafia contingent of Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke) and Bugsy Siegel (Edward Burns). After being informed by Nash that a mysterious friend of Teague’s recommended Teague for the gig, the officer accepts. He then takes this information to his superiors, mob squad honcho Hal Morrison (The Walking Dead’s Jeffrey DeMunn) and police chief “Boy Scout Bill” Park (Neal McDonough), who organize a bust on the blackmail meet.
Of course things go crazy wrong and, spoiler alert, Teague turns on Hecky and guns him down. We’re left at the end of the episode with Teague at the jazz club where he meets the “mysterious friend” Ned Stax (Milo Ventimiglia), who set the whole murder up. Stax, despite his newfound status as an attorney, is a “fixer” for Siegel and Cohen. We fade to black.
“A Man Walks into a Bar” not only piqued my interest to tune into the second installment of Mob City — it also made a fan of the show and a now loyal viewer of the series. The biggest selling point in this episode is actually the series’ main guest star, Simon Pegg. Yes, it’s long been documented my affinity for Mr. Pegg, but tonight he blew us out of the water with his most non-Simon Pegg performance ever. Sans British accent, Pegg nailed Hecky’s character — a fading, desperate, destructive comedian. Throughout the climax of the episode Pegg is given amazing line upon amazing line about the ugliness and beauty of Los Angeles, about getting the last laugh on men who always succeed and his plans for the future. It’s so awesome to see such a great comedic actor devour such a dramatic role.
Outside of the Pegg factor, this initial episode was exactly what the show needed to deliver in order to hook the audience. Opening and closing voice-overs by Bernthal established the film noir quality of the series as not merely a homage to a bygone era of film, but as the actual tone of the series. Yes, like a good noir Mob City takes its time to develop, it explodes with violence and despite its shadows and darkness, is still a polished and beautiful piece of drama.
“Reason to Kill a Man” is more about character development than moving the plot forward. We realize that Hecky’s girl Jasmine Fontaine (Alexa Davalos) is actually linked to Teague and she’s the reason Teague offed Hecky (I’m not spoiling that pay-off). Of course, being the man of stone he is, Teague doesn’t let this on but his compadres within the mob squad are a bit suspicious. We also find out that Fontaine is not only a photographer who has loads of incriminating photos of the Siegel/Cohen organization but she also works in Cohen’s Clover Club.
We’re also fully introduced to the “villains” of the series. Veteran character actor Robert Knepper (Prison Break) gets some great moments in this episode as the violent Cohen thug Sid Rothmen who will kill anyone his boss wants — even in the most public of places (in Episode 1 he kills a man in a church, in Episode 2 he guns two down in a restaurant). We also meet the suave Bugsy Siegel, portrayed by the suave Edward Burns. Sure, Burns is as Irish-American as they come, but he really pulls off the charismatic and handsome qualities of Siegel like Warren Beatty did over 20 years ago in Bugsy. Mickey Cohen, portrayed by Jeremy Luke, was a bit underdeveloped in this episode. We only get a few hints of what he’s all about, hopefully he’ll be a bit more fleshed out.
Mob City, like any noir, doesn’t work without a great leading man. Jon Bernthal proves that he is a bona fide leading man that can carry a show. He channels the classic Bogart detective — tough as nails with a soft spot for the ladies and emotional scars hiding behind 5 o’clock shadow. He’s physically imposing, but is eloquent and intriguing. The “Shane” factor does wear off rather quickly. Of course, when he does shoot Simon Pegg, this reviewer might have yelled, “Damn it! I knew you were still Shane you son of a bitch!” After calming down, you realize that while there are some similarities between the two characters, Teague is and will be much more developed and interesting than Shane and that Bernthal is more than just a one-trick zombie-killing pony.
Mob City might be another installment in a year-long series of tough, antihero lead dramas, but it looks like the television season saved the best of these shows for last. Mob City is must-see television.
Mob City, airs December 12th and 19th, on TNT.