The wave of quality cable dramas of the last decade has turned into a flood. Everyone’s looking for their own “Sopranos,” their own “Shield,” their own “Mad Men.” When you start factoring in streaming video services like Netflix and Hulu (which are both making their own programming and importing terrific shows from overseas), it’s inarguable that there are more good dramas than at any point in the history of the medium.
But what’s also become obvious of late is just how hard it is to make these shows work. Too many shows have been made under the mistaken belief that all you need to achieve greatness is to follow a familiar recipe. Take imposing character actors as leading men, add anti-heroes in a world full of moral ambiguity, a cinematic look, some colorful dialogue, and preferably some graphic violence, and your would-be “The Wire” will be baked in 35-40 minutes, right?
These shows have the appearance and texture of the greats of past and present, but there’s something empty and unsatisfying about them. They tend to lack the ingredients you can’t just buy at the store: a distinctive voice and a spark of mad genius. Sometimes, they succeed anyway (Showtime has already renewed “Ray Donovan” for a second season), and sometimes they fail (Starz just canceled “Magic City”), but their separation from the genuine article becomes unmistakable in time. They’re the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better dramas, and AMC may have another on its hands with “Low Winter Sun.”
The cop drama debuts Sunday at 10, after the final season premiere of all-time classic “Breaking Bad.” I haven’t seen the original British miniseries on which it’s based – and which also starred British actor Mark Strong as veteran cop Frank Agnew – but the adaptation by “Criminal Minds” alum Chris Mundy has the requisite parts you would expect by now, including a commanding pair of leads in Strong and Lennie James (another Brit, and an AMC staple, between “The Prisoner,” “The Walking Dead” and now this). It has familiar actors from other shows of this type: David Costabile (quirky chemist Gale from “Breaking Bad”) as an Internal Affairs cop, James Ransone (doomed Ziggy from “The Wire”) as a low-level hood looking to expand his operation. And it has questionable ethics to spare, as the opening scene has James’ Joe talking Frank into cold-bloodedly murdering a fellow cop who’s gone very, very bad.
“Folks talk about morality like it’s black and white,” Joe argues with venom and desperation in his voice. “Or maybe they think they’re smarter, or they’re at a cocktail acting all pretentious, and then they say it’s grey. But you know what it really is? It’s a damn strobe, flashing back and forth and back and forth all the time. All we can do? All we can do is try to figure out how to see straight enough to keep from getting our heads bashed in. Isn’t that right?”
Cops killing other cops hearkens back to “The Shield,” but that was 11 years ago, and that was a show that spent its entire pilot episode building up to that stunning moment, so that we understood all the players and their motivations in the game. Here, the terrible deed happens in the opening minutes, before we’ve established much of anything save that Frank likes to brood and that Joe is a relentless salesman.
The act in and of itself has no weight, especially since, by the end of the two episodes AMC made available for review, I still have no idea exactly what makes Frank tick, despite the best, scowling efforts of Strong and his impressive skull. (Pilot director Ernest Dickerson is well aware of the hypnotic power of his leading man’s dome, and frequently stages scenes so that you’ll be looking at nothing else.) Within two hours, Mundy and James are able to establish Joe as an unabashed survivalist, who will do or say anything to keep moving forward, but I had little idea what was driving Frank, or how I should feel about Joe’s attempts to wrestle him down to his own level.
There’s lots of snarling, lots of talk about what men are willing to do to protect or hurt one another, and yet in the early going it feels empty, like a joke(*) being retold by someone who can’t remember exactly how the guy he heard it from delivered it.
(*) Not that there are any jokes in “Low Winter Sun,” which is about as grim a drama as you’ll find, even though one of the secret ingredients for this kind of show is a sense of humor.
The performances are terrific, though (James especially), and Dickerson shoots the Detroit locations in a fashion that captures both the beauty of the architecture and the absolute bleakness of the setting. This season was written and produced before the city’s recent bankruptcy, but there is an immediate sense of place, and of the feeling of being abandoned that might turn a cop like Joe completely corrupt, and that might make a (seemingly) more honest cop like Frank kill a man because he feels like no one else will stop the guy if he doesn’t.
It’s not impossible that “Low Winter Sun” could grow better, and deeper, as it goes along. Earlier this week, I reviewed BBC America’s “Broadchurch,” which was a show that left only a modest impression on me after two episodes, but that left me an emotional wreck by the time I finished it. But through these two episodes, “Low Winter Sun” left me with the nagging feeling that despite the cast and the aesthetics, there’s ultimately no there there.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org