“Low Winter Sun” begins with a murder. It’s the murder of a cop, by a cop — or rather, two of them. Frank Agnew (Mark Strong) and Joe Geddes (Lennie James), a pair of Detroit detectives, have decided to kill their corrupt, drug- and booze-addicted colleague Brendan McCann (Michael McGrady). They’re doing this for reasons that, Frank will soon learn, don’t quite match up. He thinks he’s avenging the murder of his girlfriend, while Joe’s guarding a few secrets of his own that Frank’s not going to want to hear.
AMC is premiering its newest series on Sunday, August 11 at 10pm after the return of “Breaking Bad.” That’s as prime a slot as a cable show can get, and “Low Winter Sun” does share a few elements with the meth drama that helped put the network on the map — like starting off with a bang, embracing morally ambiguous territory and taking place over a concentrated timeline that doesn’t let developments slip too easily by in a jump.
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But there’s nothing in the two episodes shown to the press that suggests “Low Winter Sun” is going to reach the levels of AMC’s flagship series. The crime saga is definitely very dark, very gritty and very serious, things that have become almost a requirement of a “quality drama.” But so far, it’s not all that compelling, not in a way that makes you anxious for the characters as they try to extricate themselves from what should be a nail-bitingly tense situation.
Throwing the audience into the murder right off the bat is a bold move, but it also means that we then have to be won over and persuaded to care if these two perpetrators get away with it after the gruesome deed has been done. And, as good as Strong (who also played the character of Frank in the 2006 British miniseries on which the show is based) and James can be, neither is given much to work with in these early installments to make their characters more than tough-guy ciphers.
This isn’t helped by the way the dialogue also tends toward the almost theatrically sparse. When Frank barks, “I’m not a bad person!” Joe croons, “No, but he is! Man’s a disease.” (While Strong keeps to the soulfully stoic, James’ delivery tends to be, less successfully, heightened.) This doesn’t make it easier to ground the two in an empathetic reality, and it’s not until Joe has a scene with his mother in the second episode that they start to seem like people with a background and history rather than noir figments.
“Low Winter Sun” is set in Detroit, a potentially rich, complex setting for a story, but one which provides for the series a dilemma similar to the one faced by FX’s current El Paso/Juarez border drama “The Bridge.” When a show choses a backdrop so interesting and current, its textures can make the main story look more artificial and contrived — like, say, a serial killer narrative in a show set against one of the murder capitals of the world.
For “Low Winter Sun” there’s more of a disconnect than a divide between its central plot and the realities of the city in which it takes place — Detroit’s police force has been hit by deep budget cuts, the city has a notoriously high homicide rate and an average 911 call response time of 58 minutes, but the show is only able to hint at these things as it narrows its focus on Frank and Joe and the arrival of an internal affairs detective named Simon Boyd (played by “Breaking Bad” alum David Costabile) who promises to complicate their lives. The show needn’t be specifically about its city’s economic strife, but it can’t not engage in it in some way.
Frank and Joe commence what’s basically an anti-procedural, with Frank, as the top detective on the force, assigned to sort out McCann’s case, and trying to stay ahead of any emerging details that might reveal the truth. Running alongside and set for an eventual collision with their storyline is one about how a trio of criminals — Damon Callis (James Ransone), his wife Maya (Sprague Grayden) and friend Nick Paflas (Billy Lush) — are attempting to build up their enterprise in order to get out from under the thumb of the city’s reigning boss. Their efforts bring them into contact with more of the city than the cops’, but their narrative still feels fairly functional; they’re clearly there to cause more eventual trouble for the tainted law enforcement agents.
“Low Winter Sun” has a very talented cast — yet unmentioned are Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Lt. George Torrance and Athena Karkanis as Detective Dani Kahlil, the colleague with a soft spot for Frank. It has a thrumming soundtrack, an intriguing setting and it quickly gets a lot of balls in the air. And, to be fair, “Breaking Bad” didn’t immediately leap to its current contemporary classic status; it took a while to get into gear, and “Low Winter Sun” has an even more deliberate pace. But so far there’s not a deep sense of urgency to find out what’s next for these characters or to invest in their fates, and that’s a tough truth to face in a television landscape crowded with series of similar ambition.