Wednesday, December 4, 2013

TNT's 'Mob City:' Ultrastylish, Ultraviolent, Totally Riveting

Jon Bernthal is Det. Joe Teague in 'Mob City' (TNT/Doug Hyun)
Nazis and gangsters – why do we love them so?

Embodiments of complete evil: ruthless, psychopathic killing machines without conscience, obsessed only with acquiring more power, control and territory. Cocky, ultraviolent maniacs we can observe from a safe distance in the cozy surroundings of our living rooms and neighborhood theaters. And unlike video games or graphic novels, we all know this stuff really happened, which adds a underlying layer of fright and fascination to the proceedings.

There are at least a dozen cable series devoted to the vicious dealings of America's mobsters past and present – including one show on Bio called, simply, Mobsters. The Military Channel, for one, might as well be renamed "All Nazis, All the Time."

On Turner Classic Movies, the day before the premiere of TNT's lavish tribute to blood and bullets, Mob City, TCM host Robert Osborne presented a marathon of classic Warner Bros. gangster movies from the '30s and '40s – White Heat, Key Largo and The Roaring Twenties among them. He was accompanied by actor Ed Burns, who stars as Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel in the new three-week, six-hour miniseries.

To me, this was a really risky move. After screening hour upon hour of timeless, seminal performances by Cagney, Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and the like, it would be very easy for Mob City to pale badly by comparison.

Ed Burns as Ben 'Bugsy' Siegel (TNT/Doug Hyun)
Ah, but they knew what they were doing. Mob City, which begins with back-to-back, one-hour installments at 9 p.m. EST Wednesday (Dec. 4, 2013), is a bouquet to badmen. What should we call this, neo-noir? It's brightly colorful, gorgeously filmed, sensationally stylish (there's a prominent pair of period black-on-white striped saddle shoes I would be proud to wear today) and exceptionally violent, beginning with a hijack scene and a trio of tommy guns that seem to spew their rat-a-tat symphony of death far past the point of overkill.

This isn't to say Mob City is the equal or better of those immortal mob movies of the past. In a very distinct way, however, it has reinvigorated the genre in order to stand proudly on its own. Style and substance. TNT has invested an extraordinary amount of care and cash to promote this original production: It is the first series in history to have its screenplay adapted and published on Twitter (@MobCityTNT, a so-called "adaptweetion"), and the network sponsored a pop-up haberdashery in New York's Chelsea Market district to celebrate Mob City's remarkable array of fashionable men's fedoras.

Sometimes specials receive this type of big publicity buildup because the network knows it has a dog and is begging people to sit with it. In this case, I think TNT wants to make sure you don't miss it.

Mob City is the beautiful delivery of director-writer-executive producer Frank Darabont, the former showrunner for AMC's The Walking Dead who recently told Vulture that "sociopaths" forced him off the hit series in 2011 and he hasn't seen an episode since. Clearly, he found another diversion to occupy his time. This is Darabont's visual revenge, down to plucking his Walking Dead co-star Jon Bernthal to play his lead here as LA Police Det. Joe Teague, a cop with a face that looks like it's lost a fight or two and whose crimebusting techniques are, to say the least, unorthodox.

Everything here feels like it's been ratcheted up a notch or three for modern consumption. The all-too-familiar nightclub scene with the flirtatious, voluptuous bartender and the rugged cop, for example, becomes a long, suggestive dialogue steamy enough to melt the buttons on your remote. Based on the book L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City by John Buntin, Mob City dramatizes the real-life crusade by 1940s Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker (Neal McDonough) to rid his booming postwar city from the scourge of underworld kingpins like Siegel and Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke) while attempting to weed out the corrupt factions within his own department. (Burns, in his portrayal, manages to stand apart from the well-entrenched image of Warren Beatty as Bugsy and create a cleaner, more streamlined character.)

The pilot revolves around Hecky – not Shecky – Nash, played by Simon Pegg, a washed-up
comedian who alternately reminds you of a bleached-out David Caruso (if such a thing is possible), ESPN yakker Colin Cowherd and (for our slightly older readers) Frank Gorshin, or a mashup of all three. Hecky is a childhood friend of Cohen's, and recruits Teague, who has just been assigned to a new anti-mob task force, to serve as his bodyguard while he carries out a blackmail plot against one of Mickey's top associates.

As Hecky and Teague wait for the exchange to occur on a secluded expanse of oil fields outside the city, Nash, in a long and luscious monologue, sums up the miniseries and offers an explanation for our obsession with gangsters:

"This city," he sneers. "It's so damn beautiful. It's like a sky full of stars...but only from a distance. Up close, it's all gutter.

"The wise guys, they always get the best. Money falls out of the sky for these idiots. You know the kicker? Dumbest mugs you ever met."

Mob City is replete with lots of faces you'll recognize, even if you can't recall their names (including an older, dumbed-down Gordon Clapp (NYPD Blue) and Daniel Roebuck (The Fugitive), who has ballooned like a zeppelin), lotsa smoking, lotsa drinking, lotsa cursing and a whole lotta blood. You've been warned. Hey, it's a mob movie, right? And better than any of its ilk you've seen on the big screen in quite a while.

On a scale of 1-10: Mob City – 9 clicks.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Fat Chance? No Way! 'Kirstie' Is an Unexpected Delight

Richards, Perlman, Alley, Petersen: a new Fantastic Four? (TV Land)
I had a great lead already written: "TV Land is the place where old TV sitcoms go to live, but Kirstie proves it's also where old sitcom stars go to die."

I liked the line too much not to use it, even though now it has absolutely no basis in fact.

I was soo prepared to dislike Kirstie Alley's new comedy, premiering at 10 p.m. EST Wednesday (Dec. 4, 2013) on TV Land with back-to-back, half-hour episodes. I had my barbs sharpened and ready to skewer. I can't begin to describe how deep a crush I had on Alley as Rebecca Howe on Cheers, and her self-destructive lifestyle choices in the years since repeatedly broke this distant admirer's heart. I was upset with her former Cheers co-star, Rhea Perlman, for splitting up with that delightful little Danny DeVito. (Even though they eventually got back together, you know how we feel about celebrity breakups!) And, as an African-American gentleman, I can forgive Michael Richards but never forget his infamous L.A. nightclub meltdown, now eight years past.

Foolish, foolish me. All those imbroglios are part of their personal lives and have nothing to do with their highly evolved television skills or note-perfect comedic timing. As an objective reviewer rather than a fuming fan, I should have known that TV Land, which has become a player in the original sitcom game through its formula of placing beloved stars from old shows in new roles with hits like Hot in Cleveland and The Exes, wasn't about to derail its momentum by adding a series with players ready for the retirement village.

Most of all, I could have predicted that executive producer Marco Pennette, the man who graced our eyeballs with such comedic pearls as Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty, wasn't likely to start gambling with his reputation at this juncture. Pennette wrote the pilot himself, and while it's no Modern Family, really people, what is? When a cast of seasoned pros sink their chops into a well-written script, the results can be downright stunning. Kirstie sparkles with wit and style that, quite honestly, I wasn't prepared for. It's surprisingly good.

Alley plays Madison (Maddie) Banks, a veteran, self-consumed Broadway diva whose intimate circle consists only of her prickly personal assistant, Thelma (Perlman), and her shady driver, Frank (Richards) – people she pays to be her friends. That tidy, tiny world is torn asunder when wide-eyed twentysomething Jersey boy Arlo Barth (fresh face Eric Petersen), the infant Banks gave up for adoption as a young ingenue, arrives unannounced at her door to meet his bio-mon. "That kid who came in with her?" Frank exclaims. "He came out of her!"

Granted, Arlo seems a bit too aw-shucks and unsophisticated for a guy who lived right over the bridge in New Jersey. ("You have a personal chef, a driver and an assistant? You're like a white Oprah!") And there's no telling how long his gee-whiz persona will play as believable before he inevitably becomes jaded and conceited like all celebrity children. But for the first month of episodes, at least, the one-trick pony of Kirstie's storyline performs admirably. The second episode, written by Mark Driscoll, doesn't appear to lose a step of Pennette's brisk opening pace.

Plus, Perlman's Thelma is cutting but not as caustic as Carla Tortelli, and Richards' Frank bumbles but isn't as spastic as Cosmo Kramer. They're not mimicking their former timeless characters, but they are who they are: there's enough of their essence left to appreciate them in their current roles.

As for Alley, seeing her in a straight 30-minute comedy again for me is like seeing an old flame after many years; though the flame may have extinguished, after not too many minutes you remember why it burned for her in the first place. And she'll be supported not only by Perlman and Richards, but also by a constant stream of guest stars: one of my favorite actors on earth, Christopher McDonald (still miss Tommy Jefferson on Harry's Law, Chris) appears in the pilot as the haughty leading man in Maddie's new hit play, and that disarming pixie Kristin Chenoweth arrives in episode two as her catty understudy.

Cloris Leachman shows up for the first holiday escapade, and George Wendt, Jason Alexander, Kathy Griffin, The Exes' Kristin Johnston – even John Travolta – will be guesting in weeks to come. But they're just window dressing. You don't need a cavalcade of stars to send up any Cheers for this show. Kirstie can stand on its own.

On a scale of 10: Kirstie – 7 clicks.