If, less than a week into the Christmas season you’re already sick of lonely reindeer, misfit toys and Charlie Brown’s crummy tree, take heart. Television has enough mayhem afoot this week to satiate even the most ravenous inner John Dillinger.
TNT’s Mob City, set in the underutilized 1940s heyday of Los Angeles gangsterism — when organized crime and political corruption were at high tide — is a lovably cynical crime noir. And the documentary An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story, airing on CNN, is downright horrifying in its sadly factual recounting of a man who spent 25 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
Mob City is a bit of an odd television duck: It’s based on a nonfiction work of history (journalist John Buntin’s 2010 book L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City) but riddled with imaginary characters and plots. And it was shot as a series but is being screened as a miniseries, with back-to-back episodes airing on three consecutive Wednesdays.
Mob City’s other distinction is that it’s the first show from executive producer Frank Darabont since he was mysteriously dumped from the zombie-apocalypse drama he developed, The Walking Dead, although it was a big hit with both viewers and critics.
He has certainly made the most of his opportunity. Mob City is gloriously aswirl in all the classic trappings of the gangster movie, from slinky barmaids to cemetery-eyed wiseguys to warrant-what-warrant? cops to hardboiled True Detective magazine dialogue. (Reluctant shamus to seedy potential customer: “You don’t know me. Why ruin a good thing?”)
The show starts off in 1947, when mobster Mickey Cohen ran the Southern California underworld with help from his Las Vegas pals Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky and little interference from the notoriously corrupt Los Angeles police.
The central character and narrator of Mob City is a (fictional) homicide detective named Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal, who played the wife-coveting sheriff’s deputy Shane in the first three seasons of The Walking Dead). Teague returned from World War II a decorated hero, but his years in the notoriously corrupt Los Angeles police have left him cynical and cautious.
“White hats, black hats,” he muses. “That’s what they always wore in the old westerns we watched growing up, so we could tell the good guys from the bad guys. ... Most of us have to make do somewhere in the middle. We live in a world of gray hats.”
Some of the black hats — Cohen (character actor Jeremy Luke) and his murderous pals Siegel (indie writer-director Edward Burns) and Sid Rothman (a fictional Mafia killer played by Robert Knepper of Prison Break) — are easy to spot.
So is the main white hat, a police captain named William Parker whose ambition to make chief rests on his ability to get the city’s gangsters under control.
The color of Teague’s headgear is harder to discern. When a petty crook who’s blackmailing a mob capo offers Teague some quick money to act as the muscle where incriminating photos are exchanged for a payoff, the detective reports it to his superiors — but only after learning that his meeting with the extortionist was spotted by police surveillance. Did he tell because he’s a good cop, or because he thought they already knew?
As that question remains tantalizingly unanswered, the cops decide to turn the blackmail payoff into a sting where they can grab the photos and use them to prosecute whichever gangster boss they implicate. But when the exchange goes sideways, Teague finds himself walking a tightrope between his bosses and the mob, one that stretches back into his own past.
Mob City would be better if it were just a little bit more raw — there’s something amiss when a putative sleazy jazz dive looks like you could eat off the floors.
But its proudly pulpy sensibilities (Los Angeles, notes one doomed character as he gazes at the nighttime skyline, is “like a sky-full of stars, but only from a distance — up close, it’s all gutter”) and its startling plot twists make it a whiskey-and-a-shot pleasure.
There are many words that can be used in connection with An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story — infuriating, sickening, dismally depressing — but “pleasurable” is hard to apply to a documentary that recounts such a grotesque miscarriage of justice.
Michael Morton, a 32-year-old Texas grocery-store manager, was convicted in 1986 of beating his wife Christine to death in their bed. There were no witnesses and scant evidence of any kind, but a politically ambitious prosecutor pressed hard. And jurors — a couple of whom bravely agreed to be interviewed for An Unreal Dream —said he just didn’t seem very sad, which was enough for them.
His conviction not only sent Morton to prison for life but cost him his 3-year-old son Eric, who as he grew older, stopped visiting. “It wouldn’t have made sense to love him if he had killed my mother,” Eric explains.
Nearly two decades later, when attorneys learned that cops had withheld evidence that could have cleared Michael — including an eyewitness account of the murder — the prosecutor who sent him to jail launched a scorched-earth campaign to keep him there that succeeded for another six long years.
DNA tests on a bloody bandana found near the crime scene finally proved the guilt of someone else, and Morton was released. The film ends with a clip of his testimony at a legal hearing to bring charges against the prosecutor who used him as a career scalp, urging the court to “be gentle.” I learned a number of things from An Unreal Dream: the vulnerability of the criminal justice system when police and prosecutors lie; the fickleness of jurors; and, most indelibly, that Michael Morton is a kinder human being than I could ever be in my wildest dreams.