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Given Detroit's recent declaration of bankruptcy, one hesitates to say AMC's gritty new cop drama Low Winter Sun is competent but not terribly necessary, but there you have it. Maybe you should watch it because Michigan shelled out a whole lot of money for incentives and the Motor City needs the jobs and the income the location shoots will bring.
Premiering Sunday, the 10-part series is based on a British miniseries of the same name which also starred Mark Strong (Zero Dark Thirty) as Frank Agnew, a good cop who breaks his own moral code by killing a dirty cop and then getting tapped to find out who did it.
It's gritty. In fact, it's fairly lousy with grit, and that's why we're supposed to care. See, gritty is a sacred word in television drama these days.
People who make TV shows believe gritty translates to instant authenticity, no matter how unbelievable or uninteresting a show may otherwise be. Think about how much grit has already suffused the medium: There's The Killing, The Bridge, The Following, Justified, Banshee, Breaking Bad, Homeland, Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy — the list goes on.
So what does Low Winter Sun, produced and written by Chris Mundy (Criminal Minds), bring to the gritty party? Decent performances, verisimilitude in setting, costumes, and photography, potentially interesting characters, and weak scripts filled with over-freighted dialogue and prescient observations.
Within the first few minutes of Sunday's pilot, Sun plants its flag in the already heavily trod territory of moralistic ambiguity. We see Agnew having a drunken conversation with his corrupt colleague, Joe Geddes (Lennie James, The Walking Dead), who wastes no time letting Agnew and us know that this will be a show about moral conflict.
''Folks talk like morality is black and white," Geddes says. "You know what it's really like? A goddamn strobe."
Not only do we know right off that this is a show about shifting moral compasses, but something else, too: That it's a badly written show. People do not talk that way in real life. Caution: Writers at Work.
It's challenging trying to get a purchase on the story and characters in the first two episodes. On the one hand, the premiere is efficient in outlining the fact that Agnew is a good guy who's gone to the dark side because his Russian girlfriend may or may not have been murdered. On the other, we don't see or feel that evolution.
While it's admittedly unfair to compare Low Winter Sun to Breaking Bad, the best show currently on TV, that series has been all about the journey Walter White and other characters have made to the dark side of Morality Street. The writers have spent five years detailing Walter's transition, so of course, we're heavily invested in the story.
Low Winter Sun might not have five years, so it has to move things along quickly. Fine, but unless we really see what Frank was like before he kills a fellow cop, we can't really get a solid grip on who he is becoming, much less feel empathy for him.
Beyond character empathy, there's a problem of plot credibility. Geddes and Agnew kill dirty cop Brendan McCann in a way that no intelligent cop would. I won't reveal how they do it, but if they wanted the death to look like a suicide, they make two bone-head mistakes that even a rank amateur wouldn't make.
While Agnew is supposed to be the anti-hero of the piece, there are plenty of out and out baddies, strobe light metaphors notwithstanding. Geddes is bad through and through and has enough on Agnew to believe he can control him.
Ambitious young Damon Callis (James Ransone, Sinister) is out to break away from the ruling crime boss of Greek Town, Alexander Skelos. Damon's wife, Maya (Sprague Grayden, Sons of Anarchy), loves to massage cocaine into her gums as she plays Lady Macbeth of the mean streets of Detroit. Nick Paflas (Billy Lush, The Chicago Code) is a war veteran who's ready to pop at any and every minute. At one point, he crushes a bar patron's windpipe after the guy remarks on the symmetry of Maya's posterior.
The other cops include Simon Boyd (David Costabile, Breaking Bad, Suits) of internal affairs, which was investigating McCann before his death, and precinct captain Charles Dawson (Ruben Santiago-Hudson, American Gangster), whose position is endangered by McCann's death and the internal affairs investigation. Det. Dani Kahlil (Athena Karkanis, Survival of the Dead) is tough, competent, and suspicious of Frank's recent moodiness.
The performances really are good, almost good enough to make the hokey dialogue believable, but not quite good enough to make Low Winter Sun must-see when there are so many other shows — about cops and otherwise — that do this moral ambiguity thing much better.
But one thing you can say about Low Winter Sun: It is full of grit.