When Frank Darabont geeks out over his favorite kinds of genre storytelling, the results are ususally excellent. Take The Mist, the severely underrated 2007 adaptation of Stephen King's claustrophobic novella, which Darabont made even more cynical and disturbing. And, of course, there's AMC's The Walking Dead, originally overseen by Darabont and made initially brilliant through his ability to pay homage to George A. Romero while also enhancing the flesh-eating with rich characterization. Include Darabont's earlier film credits, like King adaptations The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, and you have the image of a man who demonstrates passion and skill at his craft.
Based on the first two episodes, Darabont's new TNT miniseries, Mob City (the two-hour premiere begins tonight at 9 p.m. EST), may prove to be the writer/director/showrunner's first time overindulging in one of his favorite things. All pulpy noir, Mob City—based on John Buntin's 2010 non-fiction book L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City—isn't as hammy as Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, but it often veers dangerously close to being just that. All of the characters speak in the kind of hard-boiled dialogue that Raymond Chandlers acolytes have been aping for decades now. Walking Dead alum Jon Bernthal, playing antihero detective Joe Teague, walks around Darabont's vision of 1940s Los Angeles with a perpetual scowl, as if he were waging a personal war against a Humphrey Bogart poster. Edward Burns and newcomer Jeremy Luke play real-life gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen, respectively, though without the lived-in command of Stephen "fictional Al Capone" Graham on HBO's Boardwalk Empire. Burns and Luke come off as play-actors, never legitimate tough guys.
Yet, despite its many flaws, Mob City somehow works just enough that it should earn a dedicated viewership for its six installments following tonight's premiere. Darabont, ever the crafty storyteller, outfits Mob City with a more intimate narrative, rather than what could have been a standard, Gangster Squad-light story of cops versus gangsters. (Though that's present, too, in the form of heavy-handed good-guy LAPD chief William H. Parker [Neal McDonough] and his mission to take down Mickey Cohen's whole operation.)
The juicy part is a blackmail-gone-south arc, one that's patiently doled out throughout the first two episodes and accentuated with a mid-size whopper of a twist that arrives at the end of tonight's first hour, titled "A Guy Walks Into a Bar." Guest star Simon Pegg factors heavily into Joe Teague's central purpose, as does the prerequisite femme fatale. She's got a name straight out of the Noir 101: Jasmine Fontaine (Alexa Davalos). How Pegg's hot-wired stand-up comedian character Hecky Nash (please flip to page 143 in Noir 101), Jasmine Fontaine, and Joe Teague's lives intersect is the driving force behind Mob City. Although it's not exactly revolutionary storytelling, Darabont's narrative direction does separate it from familiar, better entries into the gangster genre, like The Untouchables and L.A. Confidential.
It's too early to call Mob City a disappointment. Near the end of tonight's second hour/episode, "A Reason to Kill a Man," the energy ratchets up significantly, largely due to blanks being filled in regarding co-star Milo Ventimiglia's wheelin' and dealin' mobster character's role in Teague's world, and a well-staged hit carried out by evil gangster Sid Rothmen (Robert Knepper). And it'd be criminal to overlook the fact that Darabont has proven himself more than capable of writing four-star TV episodes—namely, The Walking Dead's masterful pilot, "Days Gone Bye," and its follow-up hour, "Guts." Darabont's previous credits lend Mob City a certain amount of goodwill.
The same can be said for his endearing reputation as one of the industry's most pure-of-heart fanboys. It's obvious that he loves old gangster movies, noir fiction, and Tommy guns. But for the sake of pulp fiction fans everywhere (and, you know, people who like good TV), hopefully he's able to do more than just slobber on Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)