‘Low Winter Sun:’ The Dark, Desperate, Devilish Dimension of Detroit

August 8, 2013

Detroit Images You May Recognize:  The Riverfront, Renaissance Center (of course), the People Mover, Wayne County Building, old Detroit Police Department, Zeidman’s Pawn Shop, Serman Shoes, J.L. Stone Co., Baltimore Bar and Grill

It begins with a rugged-looking bald man shedding a single, anguished tear. Is it a tear of sadness, remembering the death of a love? A tear of remorse, agonizing over the horrific deed he knows must be done? A combination of both? We are not told, and there is no simple answer. But it’s not every new police drama that starts with the image of a cop crying.

Low Winter Sun, which premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday (Aug. 11) on AMC, is set in Detroit (as you must know by now), and Detroit is a living, palpable character in the show, but by no stretch could it be construed as an exercise in Detroit-bashing. The 2006 British miniseries of the same name on which it’s based, winner of a Royal Television Society Award in the U.K. for Best Drama Serial, is set in gritty Edinburgh, Scotland. Like the teary-eyed homicide Detective Frank Agnew in the opening scene, however, Detroit is complex, intense, dark and layered, and provides no easy solutions. It’s a perfectly compatible location.

The city’s Fraternal Order of Police isn’t likely to nominate Agnew (Mark Strong) as its departmental poster boy anytime soon. He’s brooding and moody. He’s a little too wise for his own good. He’s deeply conflicted over the very nature of right and wrong, good and evil. Oh, yeah, and he just helped to kill a fellow officer.

It is that act, an unspeakable murder, that propels all the action in the pilot and probably for several episodes to come. Detective Brendan McCann (Michael McGrady, in the ultimate cameo role) is a loutish, ham-fisted alcoholic and an embarrassment to the force. But that’s not what leads to his demise. Agnew’s squad mate, Joe Geddes (Lennie James), convinces Agnew that McCann has brutally executed and dismembered a woman who was dear to him. Brendan gotta go.

Agnew keeps repeating, “I’m a good man,” almost as if to convince himself, but Geddes (who gets most of the best lines in this hour) stares him down with a response that defines the premise of the entire series.

“Folks talk about morality like it’s black and white,” Geddes sneers. “Or maybe they think they’re smarter when they’re at a cocktail party acting all pretentious, and then they say it’s gray. But you know what it really is? It’s a damn strobe.”Lennie James, Mark Strong_amc frank ockenfels

After drowning McCann in a restaurant’s kitchen sink, a scene reminiscent of neoclassic film noir or a late 20th century mob movie, the two detectives set out to stage the perfect crime, placing Brendan in his black Cadillac and sending it plunging into the Detroit River as an apparent suicide. Now the trick will be hiding their guilt – gazing defiantly through the strobe – as they investigate their own murder.

What they didn’t know is that McCann was on the take, being paid off by some violent young drug thugs who are expecting something in return for their investment. To top it off, priggish Internal Affairs officer Simon Boyd (David Costabile, fresh from Breaking Bad and a veteran of The Wire) is sniffing around their shabby squadroom for the crap that Brendan had spread. This murder will be nothing close to perfect. And Agnew and Geddes are antiheroes. Was Geddes telling Agnew the truth? Are we rooting for them, or against?

Strong, who is reprising the role of Frank Agnew from the original miniseries – this time with a “Detroit accent” – and James, an AMC fave from his early role in The Walking Dead, are both British. I stand constantly amazed at how U.K. actors can come to the States and easily pass as Americans but U.S. performers can’t pull off a believable British accent. (To which I always get the response, “Oh, yeah, how about Renée Zellweger as Bridget Jones?” Fine. That’s one. Who else you got?)LWS group shot

They’re surrounded by a powerful cast, led by veteran actor and Wayne State grad Ruben Santiago-Hudson as precinct commander Lt. Charles Dawson, Billy Lush (The Chicago Code) and Erika Alexander (Living Single). You may not know the stunning Canadian Athena Karkanis, whose credits include the Saw movie franchise, as Det. Dani Khalil, but you’ll want to.

Executive producer and series adapter Chris Mundy, whose previous series include Criminal Minds, Cold Case and AMC’s current Hell on Wheels, has created a gloomy, unrelenting landscape where the strobe separating the good guys from the baddies spins at high speed. And Detroit is not spared from its realities: the house containing Agnew’s well-fortified, second-floor apartment sits across the street from abandoned houses that look like they were bombed in World War II. In fact, the drawback of the pilot is that it never lightens up. Even The Wire and NYPD Blue cracked a few smiles every now and then. The initial hour leaves lots of room for growth.

AMC, which has transformed itself in recent years into a standard bearer for quality prime-time TV, has much invested in the success of Low Winter Sun. It has slotted the show behind the final eight episodes of its monumental hit Breaking Bad, and obviously expects it to replace that series in short order. Its other lauded programs, like Mad Men and The Walking Dead, are growing long in the tooth. AMC is giving Low Winter Sun every opportunity to be sampled, viewed and garner a following.

If only Detroit enjoyed such unqualified support.

Grade: B+

Jim McFarlin writes about television and media for the Metro Times. Subsequent episodes of Low Winter Sun will be reviewed and discussed on McFarlin’s TV blog, Big Glowing Box.

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  • Brian

    Frank Agnew is played by mark strong, not mark scott.

  • Yalebabe

    Joe Geddes is played by Lennie James, not Vinnie James.