Midway through tonight’s episode, “Cake On The Way,” there’s a sequence that succinctly illustrates how frustrating this show has been. In it, Frank and Joe have huddled up at Frank’s house in order to come up with a plausible story that will tie the murder of corrupt cop Brendan (which they committed) to an unrelated drug house homicide. The clock is ticking, since they have to present this frame to the mayor’s office in the morning.
On the one hand, it is the sort of intense, performance-centered stuff I thought the show would have more of, and Mark Strong and Lennie James make the most of it. Working their “big board” of photos, connections, and clues in a tight two-shot, they have a nice, loose rapport going. With Frank putting that big cop brain to work and Joe blearily riffing on his plans, it seems, perhaps for the first time in the series so far, that these men actually know each other. Plus, they’re also actually allowed to exhibit a sense of humor for a change—James is especially adept at playing Joe’s drunk gallows humor, musically chiming out the passing minutes, and boasting about his peeing prowess.
Unfortunately, this brief oasis of character development is almost immediately dried up by the plot’s resurgence and some jarring tonal shifts, as their boozy bonding gives way suddenly to clichéd exposition about Frank sponsoring a young boxer (“I never had the help when I was young—he’s a good kid”), Joe’s childhood lies about his father being a boxer—and then Joe’s yelling and Frank’s throwing things and yelling, and then there’s Frank’s realization that they’re “trying to force a square piece of crap down a round toilet.” Sigh. Apart from being the worst-written line of dialogue I’ve heard in 2013, this climax caps off a promising sequence allowed to careen heedlessly around the screen. By this point in the season, the spectacle of talented actors flailing around in service of a by-the-numbers cop show without a single original idea in its arsenal is simply dispiriting.
And dull. In the end, Frank and Joe decide to to contradict the official line of Brendan as “hero cop” by implicating him in the murder and robbery in the drug house, a brilliant idea spurred by the fact— underscored by dramatic music—that there was a sink in the house. A sink! Hey—Brendan was drowned in a sink! It’s that sort of top-flight police work that ensures a successful criminal conspiracy.
Meanwhile, in a subplot that seems to actually be getting further away from the main action, James Ransone’s Damon and crew are settling into their roles as pimps/chicken merchants in the “blind pig” (an obtrusive phrase which sounds falser the more times its said), bro-ing out at a local diner and setting up for their big night, when their place will be swamped with customers looking to watch the debut of Frank’s fighter. (Apparently, the blind pig has cable now.) This half of Low Winter Sun has only the most tenuous connection to Frank and Joe’s plans (Brendan used to provide Damon’s crew with protection, or something), and that connective tissue keeps stretching thinner and thinner. Which might be dramatically tenable if the story were taking on a vitality of its own, but it remains as indifferently written as the main plot, with characters as inconsistent. This week, Damon and Maya’s heretofore rock-solid marriage dissolves into a slap fight (and makeup desk sex) when Damon becomes jealous for no discernible reason other than that she spoke briefly to her junkie, drunky ex-cop ex-husband Sean, and that blind pig co-manager Poppa T (Sam Brice) calls her “little mama” literally every time he sees her. There’s a twist, a double-cross, and a final death scene which would be affecting if we’d been made to care about the character involved, but this plotline just keeps eating up more and more screen time, to little dramatic effect.
At this point, Low Winter Sun has shown all it’s got. Some good actors performing in an under-imagined, prosaic cop show with pretensions it’s unequipped to live up to.
- Nothing’s going to beat the “square piece of crap” line above, but Low Winter Sun’s dialogue remains ridden with lines as clichéd as they are stupefyingly dull. The mayor’s aide gets the worst of it this time, with the script (credited to Damione Macedon & Raphael Jackson Jr.) establishing her as “powerful career woman” with lines like, “You know how much I can get done in five days and still have time to get my legs waxed?” and “Cut the dick-measuring, detective.”
- Every mention of David Costabile’s internal affairs cop Boyd seems to come as an afterthought in these reviews, but that fits with how he’s (under)used on the show. I laughed when Joe angrily blurts out, “What the hell’s he here for?” when he sees Boyd milling about at the drug house crime scene. Costabile’s gets one scene per show, you know that, Joe—he’s introduced standing off to one side, you ask, “What the hell’s he doing here?,” he says something insinuating and snarky, and then you insult him. Every episode.
- That being said, Costabile has fun when he can. Responding to Frank’s accusation that he only lets facts “dribble out,” Boyd twinklingly replies, “Huh—The Dribbler. I like that.”
- Frank (and apparently the entire Detroit PD) have sponsored the young professional boxer last seen being goaded into beating the guilt out of Frank in “No Rounds.” In this episode, they present him with a robe emblazoned with “Detroit PD” and “homicide”—I’m sure he’ll be fine.
- Joe revisits the shady preacher Dani questioned last episode and gets him to open up in about two minutes (which doesn’t speak well of Dani’s cop work) by quoting some Bible verses and making a vague promise to help the preacher’s brother who’d been busted. It’s nice to see Lennie James get a chance to strut his stuff—he really is a good actor—but, and this is becoming a familiar refrain, the whole transaction here is perfunctory and flat.
- James keeps being ill-served by too-obvious reaction shots. This time, when Frank gives their concocted scenario to the higher-ups, there’s a quick shot of Joe grimly nodding in assent so emphatic and artless that anyone in the room would take notice. If anyone on this show ever took notice.
- The same thing goes for the show’s designated skeptics, Dani and Boyd, each of whom signifies their doubts with a requisite narrowing of the eyes. Every time Joe or Frank tells a lie.
- Frank and Dani share some exposition time. Her dad likes that she’s “in a position of power in this country”; her mom wanted her to be a doctor or lawyer. Frank never knew his parents. Back to the plot.
- After the fight, Joe and Frank discuss their frame job out loud on the street with cops streaming all around them five seconds after their Lieutenant walks away. Their criminal conspiracy badly needs the cone of silence.
- I'm unclear on what Frank is doing at the computer at episode's close—he seems to be looking at old police reports of suicides investigated by Joe and Brendan, but there's no establishing reason why he'd be so interested in that at this particular point. Just another poorly-motivated contrivance for plot's sake.