Jon Bernthal looks like the walking dead, his swollen face covered with bruises and cuts. As world-weary 1940s cop Joe Teague, he’s confronting crime boss Bugsy Siegel (Edward Burns) and his gang of snazzily dressed thugs outside L.A.’s vintage Biltmore Hotel. Because this scene is from the season finale of TNT’s Mob City, we can’t reveal what Teague says to the ruffians, but his words earn him another vicious beating. “We tried to adhere to the film-noir paradigm that the longer the story goes on, the more the hero gets beat up,” explains writer-director Frank Darabont, looking displaced amid the high-class hoods in his Hawaiian shirt.
Bernthal swaggers over and mock-preens: “How do I look?” Like hell, but way more lively than the last time we saw him, as a reincarnated zombie on Darabont’s previous show. While Mob City has no relation to The Walking Dead, it was birthed by the AMC hit’s behind-the-scenes upheaval. After Darabont was ousted during season 2, he started work on an adaptation of the book L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City, scooping up Bernthal and fellow Walking Dead actor Jeffrey DeMunn after their characters were killed off. “I wanted to write about a guy who is walking the streets of a corrupt world and trying to maintain his moral compass,” says Darabont. “Immediately I had Jon in mind.”
His Walking Dead experience, Darabont admits, left him a bit “gun-shy” about returning to TV. Yet the director (best known for adapting Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile) says TNT brass reassured him they were filmmaker-friendly — and, more important, he had a story to tell: an epic battle loosely based on the true account of cops and robbers in post-WWII Los Angeles. “Frank brought the horror genre to TV in a way that was all about the storytelling and the characters, and I feel like he’s doing the same thing here with the noir genre,” Bernthal says. If anything, Darabont is even more involved with Mob City: Of the first season’s six episodes, he wrote three and directed four while polishing every script — no mean feat with a historical drama, where every detail counts. Says Darabont, “You end up having a lot of conversations about ties and cars.”
Rounding out the sprawling (and almost all-male) cast are Milo Ventimiglia as a shady lawyer, Jeremy Luke as mobster Mickey Cohen, Neal McDonough as police chief William H. Parker, and Simon Pegg as a nightclub comedian. But the heart of the show is the clash between the fictional Teague and the real-life Siegel, portrayed here as a scenery-chewing prince of darkness. “All I’m doing is beating the s— out of people, killing people, hitting on girls — I don’t have a single boring scene,” Burns raves. Which oughta help, since TNT is employing a risky release strategy: All six episodes will air across three weeks starting Dec. 4, with the network counting on binge-viewing during the holiday month. Darabont isn’t worried. “This has plugged into a passion I’ve had my entire life for this world. It’s not like I’m out to prove anything.”