Stephen David Entertainment is certainly having its moment, but it’s one motivated more by economics than creativity — or history. The company has mastered producing a form of docu-hybrid that mixes heavily produced historical reenactments with expert commentary — not a TV movie, exactly, but enough of one to not scare off the documentary-phobic. The latest example: “The Making of the Mob: New York,” an eight-part series for AMC, which will merely remind fans of quality drama how much they miss “Boardwalk Empire.” Many of the names are the same, but everything else about this production screams of an excuse to trot out mob movie reruns.
Narrated by Ray Liotta (whose breakthrough role in “Goodfellas” will be the first movie the channel pairs with the program), “Making of the Mob” begins in 1905 and proceeds through decades of mob history. As with David’s “The World Wars” and another eight-part series currently airing on National Geographic Channel, “American Genius,” actors play out scenes that portray actual historical figures, here involving the likes of Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, but the dialogue is generally muted underneath the narration and a positively abusive musical score, which never approximates anything less than a swelling crescendo.
Much as they did in “World Wars” and “The Men Who Built America,” the producers add a pandering quality to their panoply of talking heads, augmenting the requisite historians with luminaries from other fields. In “Making of the Mob,” that means enlisting the likes of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, singer Frankie Valli and actors who have played mobsters in movies — among them Chazz Palminteri and Joe Mantegna, and Drea de Matteo and Vincent Pastore of “The Sopranos.” Because, seriously, why muck up a historical discussion by turning to more than a couple of people with an academic degree in it, especially if they’re not immediately recognizable?
There’s no mystery why networks have been drawn to this formula, which approximates drama at a relative fraction of the cost, and benefits from a kind of shorthand among those who have seen actual movies, or (gasp) documentaries, related to the subject matter. Even that rationale, though, hardly justifies the dumbing down associated with the process, which might have yielded reasonable returns — hence the popularity of the format — but exhibits minimal respect for the audience.
A lot of notorious names are shown doing bad things during “The Making of the Mob,” but sitting through the first few hours, it’s that stoop-to-conquer mentality, more than anything else, that really seems criminal.