Based loosely on John Buntin’s 2009 “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City,” it covers some of the same territory as did this year’s big-screen “Gangster Squad,” which also related the adventures of gangster Mickey Cohen in post-World War II L.A. (A pool previously splashed in by “L.A. Confidential,” “Bugsy” and “The Two Jakes.”)
Its six episodes will air over three weeks, two by two, making this look either like a Television Event, or as if the show is being hustled quickly out of the way. But it’s a sensible approach: It keeps the whole series within the year, tightly packed and out of the way of the holidays.
Somewhat to my surprise, I like it. I’m no particular fan of “The Walking Dead” or Darabont’s films of “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile,” and as a proud native Angeleno, I warily approach any attempt to capture and plumb its historical soul. Yet with reservations, and a little bit of squinting while the odd anomaly goes by — and having seen only the first two episodes, written and directed by Darabont himself — I would recommend it.
For all its historical referents, it’s a fanciful work, based not in the world but in motion pictures. Did a real person ever say, “I always said you had brains, kid” who wasn’t quoting something he’d heard in a movie? David Tattersall (who photographed the pilot for “The Walking Dead”) borrows the shadowy look of old film noir and adds color.
Composer-trumpeter Mark Isham washes the soundtrack with period atmosphere. There is cigarette smoke; there is neon. There are backlot city streets, made wet for reflective effect, like countless backlot streets before them.
“White hats and black hats, they do exist,” says central character Det. Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal), remembering the movies he grew up on. “They try to shape the world in their image. Guys like me have to make do somewhere in the middle. I live in a world of gray hats.”
The black hats here are the oddly comical Cohen (Jeremy Luke, better cast than Sean Penn, who played him in “Gangster Squad”), his good-looking boss, Benjamin Bugsy Siegel (Edward Burns) and their invented sociopathic associate Sid Rothmen (Robert Knepper). The white is William H. Parker (Neal McDonough), called “Bill the Boy Scout,” a few years away from becoming the chief of police but, dramatically speaking, the chief already. He has a yen to clean up the town and a crooked police force in the bargain.
Darabont doesn’t overly romanticize his gangsters — that he has made the series in the first place, of course, is a romantic gesture in itself, but he makes them more businesslike than demonic. A “nosh” here and a “mazel tov” there provide ethnic context.
The show manages to stay on the right side of cornball, thanks to good actors and Darabont’s liking for long scenes that give them room to relax, to create relationships that define character and go on long enough for the period lingo to sound, if not natural, at least natural to the stylized surroundings. After a needless and improbable prelude set in Prohibition New York, which seems to have been added merely to fire off some machine guns, the story does much of its business by way of conversation.
Physiognomy speaks here. Bernthal has the right, worked-over look for the role of an honest cop whose code is nevertheless his own. He is not as pretty, certainly, as Milo Ventimiglia, who plays his opposite number, a newly minted lawyer in the service of Mickey and Bugsy. As Parker, McDonough plays straight, even as his pale blond hair, bright blue eyes and soft features add a patina of otherworldliness.
Also profitably around: Pihla Viitala as Anya, who tends bar at the Central Avenue club where off-the-books business takes place, and who seems to have listened to recordings of Lena Horne and Peggy Lee in creating her character’s voice. (Bizarrely, the bar is called Bunny’s Jungle Club, which avoids a racist epithet only by the order of its words.) Darabont regular Jeffrey DeMunn brings offhand gravitas as the chief of the LAPD’s mob squad.
And there is The Woman, absurdly named Jasmine Fontaine and played, perhaps not by accident, with the contained impudence of a young Lauren Bacall by Alexa Davalos. Because there is always a Woman.
It is left to guest star Simon Pegg, as a third-tier comic enlisting Teague in a risky proposition and looking down from a hill misplaced some miles to the east, to pronounce the customary civic malediction: “This city,” he says. “So damn beautiful. It’s like a sky full of stars, but only from a distance. Up close, it’s all gutter.”
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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