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At first glance, it appears that Frank Darabont has shifted gears big time from "The Walking Dead" to TNT's new drama series "Mob City," lurching from grisly zombies to the dolled-up danger of film noir.
But the writer-director doesn't see it that way. Just as horror and sci-fi movies enthralled him as a young TV watcher - "boom, I was stuck, like a fly in amber, couldn't turn away" - so did the classic midcentury noir of "Double Indemnity" and "Sunset Boulevard."
"I loved the heated, potboiler drama of those movies," Darabont said, as well as the Raymond Chandler detective novels that were adapted for screen greats such as "The Big Sleep."
Mulling his childhood fascination with the trio of movie genres, Darabont has discerned a link among them: While the artifice of genre films is appealing, what matters is a story's honesty.
"The best stuff tried to say something real, say something honest," he said. "I'm not sure it's the trappings of the drama but the core of human storytelling that mattered to me. That's the core of all great stories."
It's the case with "Mob City," which employs post-World War II Los Angeles to pull history and fiction together in a proper noir web of violence, greed and lust. The six-part series debuted Wednesday and will play out in two-episode chunks over three weeks.
At its heart is the war between law and disorder waged by real-life figures LAPD Police Chief William Parker (Neal McDonough) and celebrity gangsters Ben "Bugsy" Siegel (a smooth turn by filmmaker-actor Ed Burns) and Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke). Gregory Itzin of "24" plays Mayor Fletcher Bowron.
Also in the mix is fictional detective Joe Teague, played by "Walking Dead" alumnus Jon Bernthal, a lawman who may have his own agenda; Jasmine, the genre's requisite beauty with a past (Alexa Davalos); mob lawyer Ned Stax (Milo Ventimiglia); and sour comic Hecky Nash (a not-to-be-missed Simon Pegg).
The consistently superb cast is matched by an impressive blend of street and back lot shooting to create a city both real and imagined. Darabont waxes poetic when asked about one scene, taped in darkness outside Jasmine's apartment.
"That's good old Hennessey Street on the Warner Bros. back lot," he said. "I can't even imagine being able to count how many noir movies must have been shot on that street. You wet the pavement, put up the neon (sign) you want, turn it on at night and you get this visceral thrill - film history just kind of sneaks up on you and kisses you on the head."
The inspiration for the series, "L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City," a non-fiction book by John Buntin, caught Darabont's eye when he was looking for an airpline read. He joined with executive producer Michael De Luca on development of the series for TNT, but not after due diligence.
Darabont was reluctant to jump back into series work after what he characterizes as a difficult tenure with AMC and "The Walking Dead," on which AMC declined comment. But he said he was reassured by Michael Wright, president and chief programmer for TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies.
At TNT, "the higher-ups here, they seem like they're on your side rather than out to kill you," said Darabont, of "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile" movie fame.
For the cable channel, "Mob City" represents both an evolution and a bit of a gamble. It holds true to the procedurals that its viewers favor, such as "Rizzoli & Isles," while its daring and scope evoke the grand theatrical movies that run on sister network TCM.
It's also in tune with the storytelling trend exemplified by AMC's "Breaking Bad."
"It reflects our understanding that audiences love this explosion of sophisticated, serialized programming that they've really come to embrace over the last couple of years," Wright said.
That's been accompanied by the binge-viewing phenomenon, and TNT and Darabont had that in mind when deciding on a condensed three-week run for "Mob City."
Himself a binger, Darabont recalled once plowing through episode after episode of "Battlestar Galactica" into the wee hours of the night, thinking, "I get to watch another one, if I'm insane enough to do it."
The first hour's conclusion pales next to the season finale, promised Wright, who needs ratings to keep "Mob City" alive. Low-rated prestige dramas are the province of premium cable channels or public TV, not ad-supported ones like TNT.
Darabont is "laying a lot of character and story pipe in that first hour, and he's a very gifted man. He just pays it off: You get that sixth hour and every little bit is drawn together," Wright said. "And it still sets up a fantastic second season, if we're so fortunate to draw the audience to do it again."