TORONTO – It’s a given that any mob series attempting to court TV audiences these days will be measured against “The Sopranos.”
The acclaimed serial practically redefined the gangster genre, and established upper-tier cable as the place to go for envelope-pushing drama.
But five years after Tony Soprano left the dial, network television is making the case that it, too, has the mob mentality with shows including Fox’s “The Mob Doctor” and CBS’s “Vegas” among fall’s marquee new offerings.
“I bet you for a while on television people were a little afraid of competing with ‘The Sopranos’ because it was doing it so brilliantly,” says James Carpinello of “The Mob Doctor,” which melds its gangster action with hospital-set medical stories.
“So maybe now that’s off. But ‘The Mob Doctor’ is so different from any other mob shows we’ve seen in the sense that it really is … jumping between these two worlds.”
Jordana Spiro stars as the morally conflicted Dr. Grace Devlin, a hotshot Chicago surgeon who agrees to also work for the mob in order to clear her younger brother’s gambling debt.
In the first episode, airing Sunday on CTV, Grace proves remarkably adept at secretly moving between both worlds: First, there’s the demanding hospital where she’s a respected but outspoken surgeon who clashes with co-workers and superiors and is not above bending the rules to help a patient. Then, there’s the violent criminal underworld that has maintained a lifelong grip on her and her family.
Spiro says the double-barrelled premise allows for that much more drama, and she credits producers with pushing each storyline as far as they can within the constraints of network television.
“They’re actually really interested in punching that boundary a little bit about what we can get away with,” Spiro said during a promotional visit to Toronto earlier this summer.
Spiro points to the influence of director Michael Dinner, who helms the pilot and serves as executive producer. Dinner also serves as executive producer of the FX cop series “Justified” (airing in Canada on Showcase, IFC and Super Channel) and brings “a very kind of cinematic feel” to the show, she gushes.
“The show really benefits from that and the authenticity of that.”
Carpinello, who plays Grace’s gangster friend Franco, says there’s no reason crime dramas on NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox have to be any less exciting than those on specialty channels like HBO.
“That was my concern with approaching a mob show in the wake of ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Goodfellas,’ ‘The Sopranos,’ â€” things that have clearly shown enormous levels of violence,” says Carpinello, noting there’s no way a network show can match those gruesome spectacles.
“They’re able to use language that we’re not allowed to use on network television, but I think drama is drama is drama. If you create a situation that has tension you don’t need to drop an f-bomb and you don’t need to see blood.”
Over on “Vegas,” movie star Dennis Quaid brings big screen heft to his leading role as rancher-turned-Sheriff Ralph Lamb, a man who does everything in his power to stave off the infiltration of Chicago mobsters in 1960 Sin City.
Michael Chiklis (“The Shield”) plays no-nonsense gangster boss Vincent Savino, who makes a claim to the burgeoning casino strip and its spoils, while Canuck actress Carrie-Anne Moss (“The Matrix” franchise) plays assistant district attorney Katherine O’Connell.
“The last time I was on television I did a part on ‘Baretta,’ like 30 years ago,'” Quaid chortles during his recent visit to the Toronto International Film Festival.
“I’d been looking around for a couple of years for something to do on television because I think what’s happening on television is very exciting these days.”
The big networks have stepped up their game when it comes to dramas and upper-tier cable is not the only place to find good TV, says Spiro.
“It’s just too easy for (audiences) to change the channel if you’re not really challenging them with really great, interesting compelling storylines, with the sense of humour, with a real kind of energy or engine behind the show,” says Spiro, previously better known for comedies including TBS’s “My Boys.”
“(With ‘The Mob Doctor’) I got really turned on to what had a cinematic feel to it…. That’s kind of, to me, where it seems like it’s at right now.”
She says elaborate sets and a high production value help elevate it to something special.
“The hospital that we were shooting in was this brand new state-of-the-art hospital â€” we had something like $6 million of surgical equipment in our operating room,” says Spiro. “And in the Mafia world we’re shooting in this incredible mansion.”
The rest of “The Mob Doctor” cast features veterans from some of television’s most acclaimed dramas: William Forsythe (“Boardwalk Empire”) plays former mob boss Constantine Alexander, Zach Gilford (“Friday Night Lights”) is Grace’s boyfriend Dr. Brett Robinson and Zeljko Ivanek (“Damages,” “Oz”) plays the chief of surgery, Dr. Stafford White.
Carpinello says gangster dramas are as entrenched a genre as Westerns.
“It’s people taking the law into their own hands,” he says. “To watch normal people, typically normal people, taking the law into their own hands has always been entertaining so there’ll continue to be mob stories.”
“The Mob Doctor” debuts Sunday on CTV and airs Monday on Fox. “Vegas” hits Global and CBS on Tuesday.