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
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
"I needed a good experience after the last one," said Darabont, most famous for directing a pair of prison dramas, "The Green Mile" and "
"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 (
Two years ago, Darabont stumbled across the book at an
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 (
"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
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
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
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
"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."
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 "
"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."
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
"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."