LOS ANGELES -- An ambitious, noir crime drama, TNT's "Mob City" (9 and 10 p.m. Wednesday) starts with a slow build, but it's worth sticking with this deep dive into the seedy Los Angeles underbelly in the late 1940s.
Written and directed by Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption"), who previously helmed the first season of AMC's "The Walking Dead" before getting deposed by AMC executives (his successor also parted ways with the AMC series after a season), the six-hour first season of "Mob City" will air two episodes each on the next three Wednesday nights. With its period costumes and production design, the show looks expensive, which explains why TNT is giving it a limited test run before committing to more episodes.
The first two episodes each begin with scenes in the 1920s that lay the groundwork for events in 1947 as the Los Angeles Police Department wages war against the mob. The series is narrated by Det. Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal, "The Walking Dead"), an ex-Marine who doesn't often share what he's thinking. Teague gets hired by comedian Hecky Nash (Simon Pegg, "Star Trek: Into Darkness") to accompany him to meet the lackeys of a major mobster Hecky plans to blackmail.
"This city, it's so beautiful," Hecky says as he and Teague wait at the appointed meeting spot overlooking L.A. "It's like a sky full of stars, but only from a distance. Up close, it's all gutter."
The head of the LAPD mob unit, Det. Hal Morrison (Jeffrey DeMunn), gets wind of Teague's after-hours moonlighting and recruits him for the task force, which was created by Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker (Neal McDonough, "Boomtown"), who wants to rid the streets of Bugsy Siegel (Ed Burns) and Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke).
"Mob City" plays like one of the great cable TV dramas. The look of the show - from the opening credits to the interiors of Bunny's Jungle Club - is rich in period detail that lends an air of authenticity to the project. (Watch closely in an early scene in the second episode Wednesday that's set in 1922: Los Angeles' iconic City Hall can be seen under construction in the background.)
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. The first hour establishes the world and the characters only to leave viewers baffled by character motivations that are slowly unearthed in the second hour. By the end of that second hour, "Mob City" and its characters make a lot more sense. It's a series that requires some patience in the early going but rewards those who stay tuned.
It's a mob drama, so of course there's violence but nothing as gory as what's on display in "The Walking Dead." And although there's only one female series regular - Alexa Davalos ("Clash of the Titans") plays Hecky's lady love, Jasmine - she gets some of the juiciest, most entertaining dialogue in the show's first two hours.
As Teague, Mr. Bernthal is the ideal strong, silent type, and it's nice to see Mr. McDonough play against the sinister villain role he's been cast in of late on shows like "Justified."
The cast also includes Milo Ventimiglia ("Heroes") as a mob lawyer, Robert Knepper ("Prison Break") as a mob enforcer and Gregory Itzin ("24") as L.A.'s mayor.
The series is based on the book "L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City" by John Buntin, and at a press conference on the show's set at Red Studios in August, Mr. Darabont said "L.A. Noir" is a reference point but the show will take some license with history. The Teague character, for instance, is fictional.
"It's a jumping off point because I really wanted to live up to the promise of what a noir show would deliver," Mr. Darabont said. "We wanted to go with the real facts that lend themselves so much to a good smart pulpy treatment."
Mr. Darabont said a literal page-to-screen translation of the book doesn't fit the tone of the times depicted.
"I could do a very straightforward adaptation of this book and do something very earnest and well-meaning, a 'Masterpiece Theatre' approach to what is actually a very pulpy, heated, sexy, violent world," he said. "So I gave myself license to part from that book. We are going to be following the framework of reality, but what I found very liberating was to say let's invent the history that's underneath the history. So there's a tremendous amount of invention that we've brought to this and is very freeing."
He's enjoying the show's trips into the ugly side of L.A., which he called attractive and sexy in its own way.
"Post-war, when L.A. was a boomtown and it was expanding, the mob wanted to get in here and control it," Mr. Darabont said. "Corruption in the police department was so rampant that more cops were on the mob payrolls back then than not. What's not to love about that?"
Although they may seem distinctly different -- the lead writer and a few cast members aside -- Mr. Bernthal said "Mob City" does have some similarities to "The Walking Dead."
"When Frank brought 'The Walking Dead' to the world, I think it was very much an effort to bring a genre piece to television that had never really been done before and sell this genre to a mass audience, but do it through great storytelling and compelling characters," Mr. Bernthal said. "And I really feel that's really what we're doing here."
As for the short order, that too is like "The Walking Dead," which had a six-episode first season.
"There are certain shows that benefit from a shorter order, whether that's six, eight or 10," said Michael Wright, TNT head of programming. "A show like this, sure, we'd like to do a few more, but ... we're not doing 22 of these."
Mr. Darabont is game for additional seasons of "Mob City."
"We're just scratching the surface of the potential that we can draw from the book," he said. "It's the first stanza."
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.