AMC's newest drama Low Winter Sun is all about peering into the endless, inky abyss that lies just beyond the gray area in which all its characters seem to reside. But it's also a cop show, so right from the beginning, it's clear the series has rather serious plans to take its particular narrative down what has become the now standard and highly sought after road of the antihero (in this case an essentially good cop drawn into some very bad things) and his gloomy pursuits in an equally murky and foreboding environment.
The environment, in this case, is the beleaguered city of Detroit – which exists here as something of a physical gray area, a land of boarded-up and abandoned houses, graffitied buildings and trash-lined alleyways. Effectively, it is the embodiment of the moral and social decay we see in the actions and reactions of the show's players and, more to the point, its two leads: Joe Geddes and Frank Agnew, played by Lennie James (The Walking Dead, Space Jail Lockout) and Mark Strong (Green Lantern, Zero Dark Thirty), respectively.
While James is certainly no stranger to appearing on AMC's airwaves (okay, he's only done it twice), Strong is no stranger to the role of Frank Agnew – as he played the character in 2006 for the two-part mini-series, which aired on the UK's Channel 4 Television. Together, the two make something of an odd couple: They're not partners, but they work in the same precinct, and both have a pretty serious bone to pick with a fellow detective (and Geddes' actual partner) Brendan McCann (Michael McGrady).
The pilot begins in medias res, after Joe has already talked Frank into killing McCann for what sounds like the brutal murder and subsequent dismemberment of Frank's love interest, Katia (Mickey Sumner). Together, they murder McCann and dispose of his body, using their intimate knowledge as homicide investigators to help them pull off what they believe will be the perfect crime. Rather than focus on a build-up to the murder, most of the episode is spent the following day, as Geddes and Agnew feign ignorance, shock and anger in and around their precinct while Internal Affairs – headed up by an investigator named Simon Boyd (another AMC alum in David Costabile) – spends the day looking into the purported corruption of McCann and, possibly, Geddes.
The cover-up and panic over the I.A. investigation turns what would normally be an internal monologue of one of the characters to be reformatted into pure exposition. Though lengthy and overwrought, it's not necessarily bad; most of it is well performed – like Geddes' drawn out preamble to McCann's murder – and quite a lot of it has the sort of ask-and-answer, ask-and-answer-again repetitious style of dialogue that typically denotes the work of David Mamet. In fact, the various confrontational conversations going on inside the cramped precinct feel quite similar to Mamet's Homicide, or that the pilot could easily have been conducted as a stage play. There's some nice (if slightly strained) dialogue here, but we don't really get a clear sense that there is or will be something deeper behind it all.
The trouble is: much of what transpires on-screen also smacks of repetition, of having been done before; and if the first mini-series was considered lightning in a bottle, then this first hour stands as proof of the impossibility of repackaged brilliance. Perhaps that will translate to a better series in the long run, as the original's 180-minute runtime will be completely consumed by the AMC version before August is out. By then it will be episode four, and while it's almost certain the storyline of the original will largely be decompressed to accommodate the 10 episodes of the first season, sorting out the narrative might yet yield something wholly new and engrossing that also justifies the jump from Europe to Detroit.
So far, there is little in the way of acknowledgment toward the struggles of Detroit in any consequential manner. Right now (that is, over the first two episodes), the city exists primarily as a backdrop, or a bit of set dressing, and though the state of affairs in the Motor City works aesthetically, the impact is only surface-level. The show needn't take the same route, say, David Simon did with regard to Baltimore in The Wire, but leaving things unsaid will eventually work against the series.
Aside from the fact that this story has literally been told before, Low Winter Sun's premise, its characters and, certainly its atmosphere, all feel like components to a story we've already seen countless time. Portions of it are certainly well-made and, again, some portions are beautifully acted, but it begs the question as to just how well (or if at all) the series will be able to extend this narrative over 10 episodes, and if it will find something unique and meaningful to pull from all this darkness.
Low Winter Sun continues next Sunday with 'The Goat Rodeo' @10pm on AMC.