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'Mob City' an offer TNT couldn't refuse

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.

The high-profile series is not without its risks for TNT, whose network brand is built on broad-skewing and strong-performing original programming such as "The Closer" and "Rizzoli & Isles." But bolstered by the success of the sci-fi drama "Falling Skies," the network seized the chance with "Mob City" to compete with the growing number of top-notch TV dramas that have flourished on cable, said Michael Wright, TNT's head of programming.

In addition to the Darabont program, the cable network has other high-profile shows in the works, added Wright. They include the naval drama "The Last Ship" from Michael Bay and the spy thriller "Legends" from "Homeland" executive producer Howard Gordon.

"The plan was always to also expand our reach," Wright said. "We want to keep developing in the space we've done well in, but we also want to bring in shows that show a different side to us."

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TNT is billing "Mob City" as a limited series. Its six-episode launch will unfold over three weeks during the traditionally quiet month of December, when most networks rely on specials and repeats. Two back-to-back episodes will be shown beginning Dec. 4, but even if viewers don't watch it then, the series is designed to capitalize on binge-viewing, added Wright.

Although Darabont is quick to praise his new network home, he says that adjusting to another set of standards has had its challenges. Most notably language. TV's great dramas often are violent and almost always steeped in foul language. So it was with some surprise that Darabont ran into disagreements on both these fronts.

"When they say we can use these words that adults — particularly mobsters and police might say — but we can only say it four times — five times would be too many! — it's like, really?" Darabont said, noting that he'd pushed back on the push-back as much as possible. "I'm not picking on TNT, by any means. I had the same ridiculous conversations with AMC about language and stuff. It's just so silly. I cannot imagine there's anybody who's tuning into either a violent zombie show or a mob show who is not prepared to hear the 'S' word. Or that anybody is going to hear it four times and be fine with it, but a fifth time will get really upset or offended and write a letter."

A bigger challenge was bringing old Los Angeles back to life. The show's locations manager, Scott Poole, who also works in finding the New York in L.A. for AMC's "Mad Men," said it takes a lot of patience. Although downtown L.A. still has its share of historic buildings, the area's rapid gentrification, thanks to a boom in condo projects, restaurants and bars, has narrowed his choices.

"There are those parts of L.A. left that are so period," he said. "But they are surrounded by things that are so not. Sometimes, it's just a matter of careful math, how you shoot something to leave out the modern era in a frame ... or you make use of digital technology and make it look the way you want in the edit bay."

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Residents will recognize some familiar spots: Miceli's Italian Restaurant in Hollywood, St. Brendan Church in Hancock Park, the carousel at Griffith Park, the Biltmore Hotel, Union Station and City Hall. (A separate City Hall set was built to accommodate the scenes involving the LAPD headquarters, the latter was once housed in City Hall.) In other cases, a bit of set dress-up and computer magic transformed spots such as Disney Ranch into bustling Sunset Boulevard.

"Doing a period drama is just as challenging as a sci-fi project," Darabont said. "It helps that you're not inventing the future, but re-creating the past can be a nightmare. But I love it. I love TV."

That's hardly a sentiment Darabont thought he'd ever express about the medium once derided during his youth as a vast cultural wasteland. Back then, the tube was home to "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Mr. Ed." Now, during this golden age of TV, there's "Game of Thrones" and "Breaking Bad."

"I actually kind of hated watching 'Breaking Bad' after a while," said Darabont. "Because it was when I was getting into television and you just know you're not going to get as good as that. You're just not. But you try."

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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