Great-looking but dramatically flaccid, “Mob City” mines the same territory as “L.A. Confidential” and James Ellroy’s noir thrillers, with hollow results. Loosely adapted by writer-director Frank Darabont from the nonfiction book “L.A. Noir,” this exceptionally well-cast series nearly chokes on its own murkiness, and initially indulges in talky interludes that exhaust tolerance for period jargon. TNT scheduled back-to-back episodes for three successive weeks, ostensibly to create a limited-event feel but also (in the glass-half-full department) condensing the show’s footprint if viewers don’t respond. Set in 1947 — the same year as the Black Dahlia murder — it’s a noble effort and a squandered opportunity.
Reuniting Darabont with “The Walking Dead” co-stars John Bernthal and Jeffrey DeMunn, the project centers on Bernthal’s Det. Joe Teague, a taciturn ex-Marine working as part of an elite unit within the L.A. Police Dept. Calling the shots is ambitious chief-to-be William Parker (Neal McDonough), even as mobsters like Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke) and Bugsy Siegel (Ed Burns) are exerting their power and influence throughout the city.
In the premiere, Joe gets drawn into an extortion attempt run against a mobster by a comedian (Simon Pegg), whose circle includes a classic femme fatale (Alexa Davalos, seemingly trying to channel a young Lauren Bacall).
Saying much more about whether Teague is a dirty cop on a force full of them, or what otherwise motivates him, would run afoul of spoiler warnings, but suffice to say none of the twists are so unexpected that you can’t see them telegraphed via Western Union.
Darabont does cleverly employ flashbacks to depict the roots of L.A.’s criminal underbelly — revealing windows into the characters’ pasts — while filling his world with hard men who speak in clipped sentences. In that regard, casting actors like Robert Knepper, Milo Ventimiglia and DeMunn among the assorted cops and robbers certainly lends a patina of quality to the proceedings, but can’t trump the general sluggishness of the presentation — or, for aficionados of the period, the fact these same hoods and heroes have been fictionalized with more verve elsewhere.
The third and fourth hours do settle down and offer a bit more narrative clarity than the premiere but contain other questionable choices, like a poorly mounted shootout aboard a merry-go-round.
In some respects, with its stylized look and violence, “Mob City” bears less resemblance to its obvious predecessors (which beyond “L.A. Confidential” would include the short-lived “Crime Story” and, in mixing mob fact and fiction, “Boardwalk Empire”) than the screen adaptation of “Sin City,” Frank Miller’s hyper-violent graphic novel, which reveled in atmosphere at the expense of substance.
Darabont hardly needs redemption, but having unloaded on AMC over the circumstances regarding his “Dead” exit, it would have been nice if his next project was, well, better. As for TNT, the network has delivered a handsome, much-anticipated pilot, only to have the promos and marketing outshine the finished product. Then again, as crimes against television go, that one’s so common as to qualify as a misdemeanor.