Frank Darabont has traded zombies for mobsters.
The former Walking Dead showrunner's latest project is Mob City, based on the John Buntin book L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City. The book focuses on the battle between gangster Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke) and legendary L.A. Police Chief William Parker (Neal McDonough), but the series features a younger Cohen who served as a right-hand man to infamous gangster Bugsy Siegel (Ed Burns).
The idea for TNT's new drama (Wednesday, 9/8c) was born out of a trip Darabont took a few years back. "When I found the book L.A. Noir, I didn't even know what it was," he tells TVGuide.com. "I thought it might be short stories or something. I grabbed it off the shelf at LAX and dove into it and found that it was non-fiction and really the best non-fiction treatment of this era and this subject matter that I've ever read. I couldn't put it down for like two days."
Darabont's love for all things noir, however, actually pre-dates his discovery of Buntin's book. "It's like a genetic disposition to like certain things," he says. "I've always been a huge fan of science fiction, the cinema and literature of the fantastic and I've always been a huge fan of noir. I don't know why, but even when I was a kid, if something was on TV — some black-and-white thing with high-key lighting, desperate dames, tough guys, somebody working an angle and their life is in danger with that noir vibe — I just had to watch it."
At its center, Mob City is about the war between mobsters and police for the soul of L.A. in the 1940s, where the criminal world had stretched into the ranks of the police department. But William Parker, a boy scout in his era, was determined to clean up the trash. "Parker fought a war on two fronts because he was not just going up the mob, he was going up against the corrupt elements in the LAPD, which were vastly corrupt at that time," he says. "Half the cops were on the mob's payroll at that time. It was an accepted and expected thing. He realized he couldn't make any head way against the criminals unless he cleaned them out of his own department. That's a big story to tell right there."
In comparison, the mobsters working for Bugsy, including Mickey, Sid Rothman (Robert Knepper) and Ned Stax (Milo Ventimiglia) were "simpler creatures," Darabont says. "They just wanted to own what they owned and do what they do with impunity, and pay off the guys who were supposed to stop them. Once Parker was putting a stop to that aspect of it, the heat got turned up on the mob, too. It's a fascinating dynamic of the balance of cause and effect."
However, not everything in Darabont's gritty world of old Los Angeles is based on realism. For instance, Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal), a former Marine-turned-police officer caught between the mob and the cops, was actually created as a way for Darabont to showcase a different side to the story that may not have been documented. "I've always loved history, but I've always loved the history under the history; that you can totally make up. The hidden stuff that a guy like John Buntin wouldn't have access to knowing. I'm sure there were a lot of stories that never went public. We can make that stuff up," Darabont says. "I needed a way into this non-fictional world that Buntin had written."
Thankfully, Darabont already knew he had the perfect actor on hand when he was crafting the character. "It was the opportunity to write the noir hero that I'd always kicked around in my head. I knew I had Jon Bernthal, who is the perfect period tough dude. He's not showboating being this tough guy. He just is," Darabont says. "He's very much a representative of the guys who came back from [World War II] and had to make sense of the world that was here now that that war had ended and that mass slaughter had ceased. We have to fit into polite society again."
But on bigger historical moments — like Bugsy's ultimate demise — Darabont says the show will stay true to the facts. Unlike other works about this era, such as L.A. Confidential, Darabont sees the added value in chronicling this story over a longer period of time, should the event series get picked up for a second season. "The material is so rich, we can ride this particular train for a very long time and keep the stories fresh and compelling," he says. "And by the end of it, have a real study of how a city changed over a period of time because of the people in it."
Mob City premieres Wednesday at 9/8c on TNT. Will you be watching?