In the same way that humanity doesn’t really begin until Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge and are banished from the Garden of Eden, the current spate of critically acclaimed dramas are interested in the scramble for resources and connections when civilization collapses and chaos takes over. Tony Soprano is haunted by the rank-and-file efficiency of the greatest generation’s mobsters. Don Draper joins the political and commercial elite just as the whole lot is about to be pushed off their perch. Walter White gleefully embraces megalomaniacal nihilism when terminal cancer excuses him – or so he thinks – from traditional morality.
Set in America’s most dysfunctional city, Low Winter Sun toes the line established by its cable drama predecessors with the added disintegration of Detroit mirroring its crumbling institutions. Its police force is so corrupt that partners can’t rely on each other – in fact, the pilot begins with Joe Geddes (Lennie James), a veteran cop, murdering his partner Brendan McCann (Michael McGrady), with the help of Frank Agnew (Mark Strong), another brother in blue. “Screw the blue code of silence,” says Lt. Charles Dawson (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), their boss.
Loyalty has no place here. The criminals, too, are without a code. “There is no old school anymore,” says one coke dealer, implicitly dismissing the short, old man in the sharkskin suit who comes by his bar in an executive car for his protection money.
Agnew is hesitant about killing the crooked McCann, so Geddes lectures/consoles, “Folks talk about morality like it’s black and white. … It’s a damn strobe. Flashing back and forth and back and forth all the time. All we can do is try to figure out how to see straight enough to keep our heads from getting bashed in.” That seems to be the mission statement of Low Winter Sun, which is determined to be as gray and mottled in its morality as it is in its cinematography.
The question remains, though, whether Low Winter Sun is ambitious enough to take on such narrative complexity. The pilot isn’t too promising. It’s heavy on atmosphere but light on surprises after the initial reveal that two cops are plotting the murder of another. Geddes makes for an interesting wild card, but the contrast between the weak-willed Agnew and the sadistic McCann, who killed Agnew’s wife and cut off her head, hands, and feet, is disappointingly straightforward. (Ugh, let’s not even get into the show’s women-in-refrigerators syndrome, at least not today.)
LWS also suffers from its outward similarities to The Wire and The Shield, set in Baltimore and Los Angeles, respectively, which were cop shows that depicted the cities they were set in as a character. Detroit made headlines last month when it was revealed that the DPD takes an average of 58 minutes to respond to a 911 call. LWS is shot in the Motor City, but doesn’t yet feel lived-in. Hopefully, the show will settle more into the city as the season progresses instead of using it as a too-easy metaphor for American decline. Having a Muslim cop (Athena Karkanis) on the force – Michigan is home to the second largest Arab population outside of the Middle East – is a great start.
When Internal Affairs officer Simon Boyd (David Costabile, as crisply cynical as he was wistfully earnest as Breaking Bad’s Gale Boettinger) arrives at the precinct to investigate the now-dead McCann, the stakes are raised for Geddes and Agnew’s performances of shock and surprise to be that much more convincing. The pilot’s expected twist ending – the discovery of the dismembered body in McCann’s trunk – delivers on nastiness and mystery. It’s a compelling hook for the next episode.
Unfortunately, the pilot falters on developing its criminal cast, which appeard to be aspiring drug peddlers beholden to a mafioso. The characterization of Damon and Maya Callis (James Ransone and Sprague Grayden) has so far has been as empty as their bar, but their loss of McCann as an asset and their restlessness under their current business arrangement will hopefully make them more compelling – and Detroit a much more interesting place.