Modern meets vintage on the Griffith Park set of TNT's new period crime… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
On a balmy midsummer evening at Griffith Park, a game of TV cops and mobsters is afoot.
Guns are holstered, trench coats are cinched and bruises are being smudged onto actors. And then, in mock dramatic fashion, Frank Darabont steps out of the shadows on the set of his 1940s L.A. noir drama "Mob City" and lights a cigarette.
"Time to play," said the 54-year-old writer and executive producer of the upcoming series, which premieres Dec. 4 on TNT. "We want people to dig this show."
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He's not the only one. For TNT, which has largely trafficked in middle-brow crime procedurals, sitcoms and reality programs, the new mob drama with an enviable pedigree among its creative talent represents a bold gambit into the world of prestige drama — the kind that draws widespread critical acclaim, enhances a network's standing and garners award nominations.
Success may even be more important to Darabont, who in the mob-speak of "The Godfather" films, would like to send a message to his former employers at AMC, whom he now publicly refers to as "sociopaths." Two years ago, the basic cable network unceremoniously booted Darabont from "The Walking Dead," a powerhouse show he had developed for television and for which he had served as show runner. His latest program is billed as a limited series, but if sufficient ratings are generated, it could easily slide into a regular spot on TNT's prime-time schedule.
"I needed a good experience after the last one," said Darabont, most famous for directing a pair of prison dramas, "The Green Mile" and "The Shawshank Redemption." "I had plenty of bad feelings about doing TV again. But look, a horse tramples you, you can get back on the horse and ride some more, or you decide you're never going to ride again.
"I'm not going to just sit back and feel sorry for myself, lick my wounds. That's ridiculous. You eventually have to move on."
"Mob City" is loosely based on John Buntin's nonfiction book "L.A. Noir," which focuses on the tumult swirling around the LAPD during the 1940s. In particular, the long and often bloody struggle between LAPD Police Chief William Parker (Neal McDonough) and gangster kingpins Ben "Bugsy" Siegel (Ed Burns) and Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke) forms the narrative spine.
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Two years ago, Darabont stumbled across the book at an LAX shop. He soon connected with executive producer Michael De Luca, who had optioned the book, and now, the work is finally coming to light.
With elaborate production values, the TV show certainly takes its cues from the era and makes full use of noir staples: shadows, voice-overs, and mood-setting jazz music. Naturally, there's a conflicted hero, Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal, a "Walking Dead" alum), a cop who walks a crooked line between good and bad.
"It feels like this is my life's work," Darabont said recently at his editing facilities in Los Feliz. "I've traded in the zombies for mobsters."
Darabont did not happily part ways with America's favorite serialized tale of a zombie apocalypse — a show that has continued to grow and set ratings records for AMC. First reports in 2011 identified creative differences and budgetary disagreements as the reasons for the split, but no clear back story has been offered publicly by either side since then for Darabont's removal. (Despite its overwhelming success, "The Walking Dead" is on its third show runner in four seasons.)
In May, at the upfronts in New York City where the networks trumpet their upcoming programs to advertisers, Darabont compared his "traumatic exit" to being jilted by a lover. The best coping mechanism seemed to be throwing himself into another relationship, this time developing "Mob City."
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The work ethic of the French-born graduate of Hollywood High is well known, and true to form, he quickly put it to use. He buried himself in research — bingeing on classics such as "Sunset Blvd.," "The Third Man" and "Double Indemnity," and discovering others as well.
"No one is more invested in their work than Frank," said Bernthal, who was quickly cast in the lead following his exit from "The Walking Dead." "I want this show to stick. I want him to have that glory."
Glory rarely comes easy, and comparisons, for better or worse, have already been made to HBO's Prohibition drama "Boardwalk Empire," not to mention big screen works that have covered similar ground such as this year's "Gangster Squad" and 1997's "L.A. Confidential." Is there anything new left to say within such a well-worn genre, critics have wondered.