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Posted: 11:47 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013

TNT launches ambitious film noir drama 'Mob City' December 4 

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Jon Bernthal
TNT
Jon Bernthal plays Det. Joe Teague, who is as dark and mysterious as any cop in a film noir should be.

By Rodney Ho

Atlanta-based TNT is hoping Frank Darabont, the man behind the classic 1994 film "Shawshank Redemption" and runaway AMC zombie hit "The Walking Dead," can sprinkle his magic on the film noir genre with "Mob City," which debuts Wednesday, Dec. 4.

And to make it more of an event, the network is airing two episodes each over three weeks in an abbreviated first-season test run. Plus, in a unique twist on social media, the entire first episode script is being tweeted out 140 characters at a time at @mobcitytnt.

Darabont was unceremoniously booted from "The Walking Dead" in 2011 over budget issues and refuses to watch the most popular cable show to date. But AMC's loss is TNT's gain. Darabont was inspired to create this new drama after reading John Buntin's non-fiction book "L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City," a book he picked up at an airport.

"I couldn't put it down for two days," he said in a phone press conference last month. "He's a compelling historian and brilliantly entertaining." Darabont quickly worked to turn it into a TV series.

He didn't feel wedded to the book. He blended in characters out of whole cloth that never existed.. But he  kept the battle between cops (clean and dirty) and criminal elements (mostly dirty) intact.

"Honestly, this is the loosest adaptation I've ever done," Darabont said. "It's a brilliant book, definitely a touchstone. I gave myself license to make up as much as I felt I needed to make up, to tell the most entertaining, good, meaty mob story, good pulpy noir stuff that I wanted to deliver."

He considered that era both "sexy and dangerous... I loved the clothes. I loved the cars. I loved the music. It's a wonderful period to depict."

He brought in Jon Bernthal (the conflicted Shane on "The Walking Dead") to play lead, a brooding cop Teague who sees himself neither "black hat" or "white hat" but more "gray hat." Darabont said Bernthal feels like the era depicted, "a quite masculinity that is not forced... He feels like a throwback to Robert Mitchum and John Garfield, an early era of actors."

Teague's boss on "Mob City" is another "Walking Dead" alum Jeffrey DeMunn, who was so loyal to Darabont that he is the only actor on that show to request to be killed off after Darabont was fired. (He played Dale the first two seasons.)

"It enabled me to not feel like a victim," said DeMunn of his move to leave such a successful show, "but to feel like Jeff again, to feel like I was doing the best for my friend of 24 years."

"Mob City" is packed with characters: the straight arrow police chief, a classic femme fatale, a crooked lawyer and criminals galore, including Ed Burns as mob boss Bugsy Siegel and Jeremy Luke as mobster Mickey Cohen. Robert Knepper, best known as the preening, evil T Bag on the Fox show "Prison Break," plays one of Burns' hit men Sid Rothman with verve.

Knepper loves that Darabont wrote the purely fictional character as one of those background guys who never thirsts for the attention but is proud of the dirty work he has to do. "Every human being wants to be loved," Knepper said. "Sid gets it by being accepted as a brother in this band. He's quite content." He likes that he isn't playing a stupid henchman, as many of these stock characters are depicted. In fact, Rothman's hobby is building furniture, pure therapy after busting heads for the boss.

For TNT, "Mob City" is a calculated gamble, leavened by the fact executives committed to just six episodes - much like AMC with "The Walking Dead" in 2010.

Historical genre shows like this can bring in dedicated audiences but seldom big ones - and there's a question mark on whether younger viewers will find smokey, murky noir characters as appealing as zombie walkers or vampires - or lighthearted cops like those in the network's most popular show "Rizzoli & Isles."

Broadcast networks have tried a few times in recent years and failed - CBS's  "Vegas" and NBC's "The Playboy Club" come to mind. HBO's 'Boardwalk Empire" and AMC's "Mad Men," despite critical plaudits, draw a fraction of the audience of those network's bigger hits.

But Michael Wright, head of programming for TNT, said it's a worthy risk to take. "I hope that people sample the show and love it the way we do," he said. "Frank is so into this. He puts a lot of passion on that screen from the cast to the designers."

TNT is best known for its procedurals, he said, but the network has been able to get into serialized dramas with "Falling Skies" and "Dallas." He is taking the theory that TNT shouldn't just give viewers what they know they want but what they didn't know they wanted until they see it. "This is another bridge to cross," he said.

And he said six episodes worked well for the story - and the schedule. He said TNT would not have been able to finish 10 episodes (it's standard first-season run) for December, a time he thinks people are willing to sample new programming and competition isn't as keen as it is in January. (He noted that "The Librarian" films and "Leverage" debuted successfully in December.)

The three week, two episodes a night idea also enables the network to have the series finished before Christmas week while giving people a "binge viewing" option. And Wright said, based not on research but his gut feelings, that people are more willing to embrace new things in this day and age of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, et. al.

TNT, outside of some Emmy love given to "The Closer" star Kyra Sedgwick, has not been known to bring in the prestige dramas like HBO, Showtime, FX and AMC, opting for more populist fare. "Mob City" leans more in the prestige department.

Reviews

Here's a sampling of reviews. Some critics found Darabont's work riveting while others called the plotting plodding. Most everyone agreed that he captures the visual essence of the era.

The New York Daily News (3 out of 5 stars): "As they build the show’s foundation, dozens of other characters float by. Figuring out which ones matter, and why, will be part of the fun and the challenge in this compact series."

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "After two hours, "Mob City" gets its hooks into viewers and should leave many begging for more. But it takes some time to get there."

St. Louis Post Dispatch: " 'Mob City' is smart, stylish, sexy and altogether addictive."

Red Eye Chicago (1.5 stars out of 4): "In its first two episodes, 'Mob City' trudges through so many noir cliches it's almost a parody of the genre. They create confusion rather than mystery and delay answers to the point of exhausting viewer patience."

AV Club: "It’s just a waste of a great premise and some gorgeous technical work, all in the service of a lagging, barely there drama. It reduces 1940s film noir to its most basic and surface levels—like a holodeck episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, only less entertaining."

Variety: "Great-looking but dramatically flaccid, “Mob City” mines the same territory as “L.A. Confidential” and James Ellroy’s noir thrillers, with hollow results."

TV preview

"Mob City," 9 p.m., Wednesdays, beginning Dec. 14, TNT

Rodney Ho

About Rodney Ho

I cover local radio and TV for both the print and online editions. I write a blog on the same topics.

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