There are three stars on TNT's fantastic new series Mob City: the speed, the atmosphere and, well, the actors.
Written and directed by Frank Darabont (The Walking Dead, The Shawshank Redemption), the noir drama sends viewers back to 1947, as crime and corruption run rampant throughout Los Angeles. Sure, the City of Angels has some angels, but they're few and far between — and even certain “good cops” on the Los Angeles Police Department wear black hats at times.
Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal of The Walking Dead) is one such cop living in the gray space between right and wrong. The former Marine wakes up one morning to find a note in his mailbox inviting him to a mysterious meeting, which turns out to be with stand-up comic Hecky Nash (Simon Pegg of The World’s End), who wants Teague to bring his badge and bad-cop attitude to yet another meeting in just a few nights. Hecky plans to blackmail a man who "gets his name in the papers," and he wants Teague there for support.
Saying much more would be saying too much. Suffice it to say, things quickly take a turn, and the mystery is afoot.
Mob City takes it easy. Not that the characters have it easy, mind you, but the story moves at a methodical pace. It feels as if you can count the number of scenes in the first episode on one hand. The greater ensemble doesn't get its chance to shine until the second hour, as Bernthal's Teague standing in the spotlight for the majority of the pilot episode. (He's joined there by Pegg in a scene-stealing turn; as Hecky, the Star Trek actor all but disappears into the role.) But it works. Mob City has just six episodes, and all of them will roll out over the next three weeks. Given the fast-paced release schedule, the show can breathe freely and take time to unravel its carefully plotted story.
It's easy to forgive the deliberate pacing because of the setting Mob City presents. The drama takes its cues from author John Buntin's L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City, which chronicles the true stories of war between the L.A.P.D. and the Mickey Cohen-led mobsters during the 1940s. The story is slow, but the world is frenetic and dangerous: Packed with Tommy guns and stiff drinks, serving up spaghetti with a side of gunfire, all of it cloaked in cigarette smoke. Composer and frequent Darabont collaborator Mark Isham provides the score, a robust mix of piano, horns, strings and beats; the show is as much a pleasure to listen to as it is to watch.
But let's not look past the eye candy of the ensemble: Mob City boasts a compelling cast of characters, played by veteran actors who bring the goods. Heroes alum Milo Ventimiglia's Peter Petrelli lightness works to a completely different effect here as mob lawyer Ned Stax, a man with old ties to Teague. His Heroes co-star Robert Knepper delivers his signature sneers and shiftiness as Sid Rothman, a gangster who would just as soon blow you away with a shotgun as look at you. There's the reliably powerful stoicism in Neal McDonough (Captain America: The First Avenger) as Police Chief William Parker, repeatedly referred to on the show as "Bill the Boy Scout." There's Edward Burns (Man on a Ledge) chewing scenery as infamous mobster Bugsy Siegel, all flash and sex appeal, even as he plots new ways to ice his enemies.
Indeed, it's a fantastic and well-rounded group of players, but there are a few who stand out from the pack and deserve greater mention. For example: Alexa Davalos (Clash of the Titans, The Mist), who portrays Jasmine Fontaine, connected to Hecky and Teague in ways that slowly reveal themselves to the audience. She’s stunning as Mob City's femme fatale, a woman who more than holds her own with the deadly men of the criminal underground. Mystery is the name of the game on Mob City, and few characters present a greater enigma than Jasmine. The key to Jasmine's story remains unknown, but based on the revelations of the first two hours, it's a story that should make headlines.
As Teague, Bernthal is the beating heart of Mob City. Having worked together on The Walking Dead, Bernthal was Darabont's first and only choice to lead the TNT series. The filmmaker describes it best: "He's got this very testosterone kind of masculinity that's quiet, and it's genuine." All of that energy is on full-display here, with piercing looks that speak far louder than words ever could. Losing Bernthal was a big blow to The Walking Dead, one that the show arguably has never recovered from. But the zombie drama's loss is Darabont and TNT's gain. Teague, as written and performed, provides a magnetic presences that elevate Mob City to a greater level.
But even as the cops and robbers shoot it out over control of the town, it's Darabont who truly owns Mob City. This series is his baby. After his difficult separation from The Walking Dead, Darabont's dive back into television comes face-first. He's sunken his teeth into an ambitious new project and is chewing it up by the mouthful. The dialogue sings, the story flows thoughtfully, the visuals pop, and the whole affair is, in a word, exciting. There's an argument that even when Walking Dead was under his control, it never felt like pure Darabont. That's far from the case here. Mob City is Darabont at the top of his game.
Who knows where Mob City will go beyond this first season. Perhaps there's a greater story to be told; perhaps it'll end in a quick and fiery bang. But with only six episodes airing over the course of three weeks — during a time of year when new, high-quality programming is sparse, no less — I see no reason not to plunge into Mob City. It's sophisticated and sexy, easily one of the most confident new dramas of 2013. It has plenty of reason to be.
Mob City premieres tonight at 9 ET/PT on TNT.