Los Angeles is sunshine and citrus, Hollywood and Disneyland. But “Mob City,” the period drama from Frank Darabont making its debut Wednesday on TNT, digs up the City of Angels’ dark past, when gangsters battled police for control of the oil-rich paradise.
The time: the 1940s. The players: mobsters Bugsy Siegel (Edward Burns) and his henchman vs. LAPD Capt. William H. Parker (Neal McDonough) and his drive to end organized crime.
On the fringes of both: Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal), a police detective who muses in the opening about good guys and bad guys.
“White hats, black hats ... that works in a kids’ Western,” Teague says in voice-over. “In real life, it’s different. ... I live in a world of gray hats.”
Cops and mobsters are staples of American drama, from silent films through “On the Waterfront” and “The Godfather” to “Boardwalk Empire.” “Chinatown” dramatized the battle over bringing water to the city at the turn of the century.
But in the hands of Darabont, whose credits include “The Green Mile,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Walking Dead,” the genre feels thrilling again. “Mob City” is smart, stylish, sexy and altogether addictive.
It’s also short, running just six episodes over three weeks, and that’s part of the attraction, at a time of year when everyone is too busy to make a long commitment to a TV series.
“Mob City” is based, in part, on John Buntin’s book “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City.” (That title wasn’t available, and for a while, the series was called “Lost Angels.” That was the title last summer when TV critics meeting in Los Angeles visited the set and interviewed Darabont and the cast.)
Darabont, who wrote and directed the first two episodes, isn’t producing a documentary. He calls the book “a jumping-off point” and says he and his writers “gave ourselves license here ... to invent the history that’s underneath the history.” (Buntin has been the project’s “greatest cheerleader,” Darabont says.)
The “noir” in the title was important to Darabont, though. (French for “black,” noir refers to crime novels and films that are stylish, dark and often bleak.)
He rejected, he says, “a very earnest and well-meaning ‘Masterpiece Theater’ approach to what is actually a very pulpy, heated, sexy, violent world.”
Instead, “I wanted to live up to the promise of what a noir show would deliver,” he says. “What we’re talking about is the pulp smarts of the genre. We wanted to deliver on that point.”
Deliver he does. The first night of “Mob City,” provided for preview, opens with a clever ambush and continues in the harsh light of the police station and amid the smoke and smooth jazz of Bunny’s Jungle Club. A double-cross quickly establishes where a major character is coming from.
The vagueness is necessary; TNT asks that all surprises be preserved, and it would be unfair to spoil any of the fun.
And there is fun here. Darabont is a master at the counterpoint of light and dark, tragedy and comedy, action and introspection. Viewers are immediately engaged by the characters, entertained by the action and enthralled with what might be coming next.
The setup of “Mob City” could be a little less stylish and a little more straightforward, and thus make the show more quickly accessible. But by the second hour, with the reveal of a big back story, the players all begin to sort themselves out.
All the while, the look of the show is dazzling, from the lavish sets to the suits, shoes and fantastic ties worn by the mobsters.
So, is it six and out for “Mob City”?
“I think we’re just scratching the surface of the potential,” Darabont says.
TNT programming chief Michael Wright agrees.
“It’s a rich, layered tapestry, and ... the opening to a much broader, deeper story,” Wright says. “That’s the beautiful thing about serialized drama, the further you go, the deeper you get.”
Of course, that will depend on enough viewers turning out for the first, three-night run.
who’s who in ‘Mob City’
Jon Bernthal as Joe Teague • A former Marine turned Los Angeles police detective who skirts both sides of the law. Where you’ve seen him: as Shane on “The Walking Dead.”
Edward Burns as Bugsy Siegel • The powerful West Coast boss of the mob. Where you’ve seen him: in movies from “Saving Private Ryan” to “Friends With Kids.”
Jeremy Luke as Mickey Cohen • The hot-headed No. 2 in organized crime in LA. Where you’ve seen him: in the recent “Don Jon.”
Robert Knepper as Sid Rothman • Siegel’s lieutenant and childhood friend. Where you’ve seen him: as T-Bag on “Prison Break” and last season on the CW’s “Cult.”
Milo Ventimiglia as Ned Stax • A slick-dressing mob lawyer and old war buddy of Joe’s. Where you’ve seen him: as Jess on “Gilmore Girls” and Peter Petrelli on “Heroes.”
Alexa Davalos as Jasmine Fontaine • A mystery woman who works at Cohen’s nightclub and is first introduced as the girlfriend of a blackmailing comic (Simon Pegg). Where you’ve seen her: as Andromeda in “Clash of the Titans.”
Neal McDonough as William H. Parker • Straight-arrow LA police captain determined to bring down the mob (and corrupt cops, too). Where you’ve seen him: in “Band of Brothers,” “Boomtown” and “Justified.”
Jeffrey DeMunn as Hal Morrison • Head of the LAPD’s new organized crime division. Where you’ve seen him: as Dale on “The Walking Dead.”
Gregory Itzin as Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron • Elected on a promise to end corruption on the police force. Where you’ve seen him: as President Logan on “24.”
When • 8 p.m. Wednesday, continuing Dec. 11 and Dec. 18
Where • TNT