Mob City concerns the now-mythical battle for control of Los Angeles that was waged between the city’s police force and legendary criminal all-stars such as Bugsy Siegel (Edward Burns) and Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke) circa the late 1940s. Rather than positioning our sympathies directly with either the ostensible good guy, Police Chief William Parker (Neal McDonough), or the variety of slimy baddies that circle Siegel and Cohen’s feet, such as a psychopathic permanently hired gun named Sid Rothmen (Robert Knepper), showrunner writer-director Frank Darabont provides a middle man who’s clearly intended as an audience surrogate: Detective Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal), a handsome, inscrutably stone-faced cop who appears to play both sides against one another in order to not so much thrive as simply get by. Teague appears to operate by that classic American movie logic that dictates that romantic cynicism is the key to survival, which is to say that he’ll almost certainly be committed to a cause by the end of the show’s initial six-episode run.
Mob City’s story and milieu have been well-mined by books, TV, and particularly films, and the series is unsurprisingly haunted by the ghosts of every immediately post-war American noir as well as more recent films such as L.A. Confidential and the execrable Gangster Squad. Darabont is clearly aware, maybe too aware, of the iconography with which he’s playing, and he approaches gangster-noir tropes in the same fashion with which he treated the traditions of prison films in The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, or, more reprehensibly, the clichés of Frank Capra’s “Americana” in The Majestic, embalming them in a reverence that encourages no active response apart from nostalgia.
Mob City is adapted from John Buntin’s book L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City, but it isn’t really concerned with capturing the grit and nuance of that dual biography of Cohen and Parker. Instead, the series is driven by Darabont’s desire to lavish what would appear to be a generous production budget on recreating his favorite bits from better, more vital crime films. Dive bars don’t resemble bars as frequented by anyone apart from the chic privileged wealthy; they look like sets that might be nearing a grand opening as an attraction for Universal Studios. And the suits favored by the poor beat cops don’t resemble the well-worn duds of a recognizable member of the proletariat; they’re sharp, attractive, and appear ready to be paraded down a runaway for a show celebrating the opening of a new film exhibit at the nearest fine arts museum. The neon lights of street signs look exactly the way you expect them to if you’ve seen any of the movies Darabont’s stealing from, just as smoke wafting from the barrels of recently fired pistols always appears to have been choreographed with an exactitude and politeness that would render it perfect as an image on a postage stamp.
This world is so consciously and relentlessly derivative and synthetic that you keep waiting for a meta twist that pulls the rug of reality out from underneath the characters. Unsurprisingly, the actors are mostly lost in this miasma of bloated, contextually meaningless iconography, which includes the hard-boiled absurdities they’re frequently required to sound with an air of fatally canned over-rehearsal. To be fair, what can an actor do with a line such as “He’s ripe to get flipped, lately he’s been riper”? Or “[If] you pull this off, you’re on all of our Christmas lists”?
The one element of the noir that Darabont neglects is also the most important: their sense of and connection with the frustrations of an increasingly disenfranchised working-class. There’s plenty of room for new interpretations of what’s now become a classic American form, but the only subtext to be found in Mob City is in its pointed lack thereof: This is a series drained of any social or emotional danger, set in a largely comfy version of the past, that’s designed for you to half-sleep through with your feet up as you contemplate turning in for the night. On its terms, Mob City is competently executed, but those terms are creatively bankrupt. This is a noir for people who don’t really like noirs.