[4 December 2013]
Neon lights—cobalt, citron, and emerald green—show through swirling cigarette smoke. Men who gained too much knowledge of human amorality in places like Guadalcanal or the battlefields of Europe drown existential crises and busted dreams in hard liquor. The dames are gutsy, and one is, of course, the archetypal femme fatale. Out of the rich shadows of moving image history staggers Mob City, an homage to the seamy city streets of films noirs and the pulp novels that inspired them.
Corruption abounds in late-‘40s LA. The police department is being hijacked by mob paymasters Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke) and Bugsy Malone (Ed Burns). Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal), alienated outsider despite his mainstream job as LAPD detective, struggles to find harmony in an America that’s so very different from the one he left at the beginning of World War II. Yet…. even an amateur student of film might manage these allusions. What’s missing in the first two episodes of Mob City is any serious commitment to making such gestures relevant for today’s viewers.
The most baffling aspect of the series may be the clumsiness of its direction. Frank Darabont (who writes and produces here along with directing) only reproduces the awkward compositions, static soliloquies, and restricted action of a filmed play. When fading comedian Hecky Nash (Simon Pegg) and Teague arrive early for a nighttime meet with the mob, Nash launches into a threnody for the city of Los Angeles. The attempt at expressionistic lighting only delivers meaningless shadows, not distracting nearly enough from Pegg’s strained efforts to inhabit a delusional American grifter.
Recurring lapses of logic do prove distracting, however. When Malone sits down with his cohorts in his own club, they cluster along two adjacent sides of the table, surely not the most conducive configuration for the discussion of confidential business. The wide shots of the bar where Teague meets his wartime marine buddy capture slabs of empty space with no obvious dramatic import. During an office meeting, Malone seems so cramped by a tight set that he and his fellows look nailed to their marks, and very uncomfortable, too. That doesn’t matter quite so much in a story like The Walking Dead—from which showrunner Darabont was famously dismissed after a season—where visceral thrills, rather than aesthetic coherence, propel the action. In this sort of drama, though, shots must deepen relationships, both between characters and between them and the audience.
Neal McDonough, as crusading LAPD Captain William Parker, is too often shot full face, giving the unfortunate impression that he is reading from a teleprompter somewhere just out of shot. His compatriots tell each other information they already should know, over-explanation compounded by the show’s uninspired voice-over: none of it helps us to work out exactly what might be happening, whether immediate plot points or overarching narratives. The magic of noir lay in the brutal economy of the writing. Mob City offers nothing close to this.
In fact, the premiere suggests exactly why this period isn’t more often plundered by television, namely, the extraordinary difficulty of shaking off the popular culture clichés of the period and driving through to historical reality that might be infused with contemporary significance. Without this kind of purpose, homage is only a sterile stylistic exercise.
Nowhere in the first two episodes does the series mine the obvious parallels between the late ‘40s and contemporary America. Both eras involve populations winding down from wars, attempting, and not always succeeding, to reintegrate veterans. Both are societies polarized between a privileged rich, operating inside and outside the law, and the 99% struggling to realize some facsimile of the American dream. Mob City fails to make connections between now and the repercussions of the ‘40s, say, the marginalization of democratic debate, the pathologizing of women’s agency and autonomy, and the hysterical politics of fear and insecurity in an increasingly global economy. These daunting themes remain off screen here, leaving only a series of monotonous conversations and shoot-outs.