Low Winter Sun debuts tonight on AMC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Low Winter Sun is like a particularly intense steam bath. It’s filled with lots of shouting and cursing and scowling, and it’s not entirely unpleasant. But it also evaporates almost immediately after it’s completed. In the first two episodes AMC sent out to critics, lots of stuff happens, but very little of it takes root in the imagination and begins to flourish. Call it the Quality Drama Lite, now with fewer calories to actually stick to the ribs. It’s the ultimate distillation of the “desperate, dark men doing desperate, dark things” genre, but it proves more than ever that that genre has run out of gas. To move forward in the world of quality drama, writers are going to need to learn some new tricks. Sadly, Low Winter Sun knows only the old ones, though it executes at least a few of them reasonably well.
If nothing else, it’s very well-acted. At the show’s center are Frank (Mark Strong, who played the same role in the British miniseries this show is based on) and Joe (Lennie James), two detectives who find themselves mired in the shit after Joe convinces Frank to help him bump off his perpetually drunken, perpetually in trouble partner, Brendan. This all happens in the first five minutes of the pilot, which must set some sort of record for progressing from “guy who’s willing to do whatever it takes to protect what’s his” to “guy being forced to murder to do it.” The whole thing draws unflattering comparisons to The Shield, but The Shield took some time letting us get to know the series’ lead character and the man he killed to let the audience know he meant business. In Low Winter Sun, both Frank and Brendan are absolute ciphers, and all the audience learns about Brendan is after the fact. It ends up being the single worst choice the series makes.
In terms of plotting, Low Winter Sun is reasonably competent. It turns out that Brendan was about to be the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation, which means that the very next day at work, Frank and Joe are fending off questions about where he could be and feeling the screws tighten as they wonder if their disposal of Brendan’s body (in the trunk of a car sent into the river) will hold up as a hiding place for the corpse. Anybody who’s seen a show like this will know that it’s unlikely that car will stay beneath the river’s surface for too long, but Strong and James are such great, intense actors they make the time spent between the initial murder and the point where everything starts to fall apart feel like the most exhausting training seminar ever. They’re always snarling at each other or threatening to punch something, and while none of this is exactly motivated, it’s at least performed handsomely. The same goes for the supporting cast, which includes such character actor ringers as David Costabile, James Ransone, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
The other reason to watch Low Winter Sun is for its setting. The show is filmed on location in Detroit, and while that could feel gimmicky, it instead helps propel the action. The once-great, now wounded city provides a kind of constant visual reminder of the desperation these two men find themselves in, and the series’ directors—including pilot director Ernest R. Dickerson—use the rotting buildings and crumbling edifices of the city to full effect. On a much better show, the line between the state of the city and the state of these men’s souls wouldn’t feel so hackneyed and clichéd, but Detroit definitely adds something to the series, similar to how New Mexico gives Breaking Bad at least some of its spark. (For Detroit natives terrified Low Winter Sun will show only the city’s bad points, series’ developer Chris Mundy assured critics at the Television Critics Association summer press tour that the show will also be touring the parts of the city that are doing just nicely, thank you.)
In almost every other way, though, Low Winter Sun is just the latest quality drama to disappoint by capturing the surface of shows like The Shield or Breaking Bad but missing the exquisitely hewn souls that make those shows tick. Unlike Showtime’s even more disappointing Ray Donovan, which wants to be a character study and instead ends up being glaringly obvious in all the worst possible ways, Low Winter Sun is at least sort of compelling to watch. The story, such as it is, has enough juice in it to drive the first two episodes, but already in episode two there’s a decided sense of Mundy and the writers scrambling to figure out how to expand a British miniseries—that didn’t even run three hours—to fill a 10-episode season of television—and beyond, should the show be a success. Almost all attempts to add to the original template of the show frustrate and bore, not least of which is the story of small-time crooks fighting to gain a foothold in the Detroit underworld, which always, jarringly, feels like the series is forcing its viewers to watch another show entirely for a little while, as everybody in the main plot regroups and tries to figure out how to make this stretch for another week.
The show also falters when it comes time to explain why Frank is doing exactly what he does. It makes sense that Joe wants to cover his tracks by killing his former partner, but it’s never immediately clear why Frank is so willing to help a man he otherwise seems ready to hold at arm’s length. There’s some business about a woman Frank was in love with that’s meant to drive much of this, but without seeing her—outside of some terminally silly flashbacks, shot gauzily, as the lovers cavort beneath the sheets—it’s hard to understand why he’s so invested, other than the plot requiring him to be so. That, really, describes much of why Frank does what he does: The plot needs him to do it, so there he is, at the ready, doing dirty deeds and hoping against hope he doesn’t get caught. Joe might be even more of a clichéd character—the bad cop who needs to make sure no one catches on to what he’s doing—but in James’ hands, he’s a lot more understandable and a lot more fun. It’s not hard to imagine a superior version of the show, centered on him, but Low Winter Sun never grants itself that luxury. He’s always an obstacle to Frank doing… whatever it is he needs to do. Couple that with an ultra-grim sensibility—there’s only one thing in the first two episodes that might reasonably count as a joke—and the whole thing feels like a silverback gorilla endlessly baring its teeth at captivated zoo visitors.
If viewers leave Low Winter Sun on after Breaking Bad tonight, they’re unlikely to be too disappointed. Sure, it will suffer in comparison to that great show, and yeah, it’s unlikely many of them will be so compelled as to come back next week. But the show does manage to string together some fitfully interesting moments, and James’ performance alone might be worth checking out 15 minutes of the show or so. Yet there’s this constant sense that this whole thing has been done far, far better by other shows, even the one immediately preceding this one. Nothing in Low Winter Sun is actively dislikeable, as so much of Ray Donovan has been, but very little of it immediately suggests itself as anything other than reheated leftovers. Like that other summer series, Low Winter Sun believes that if it can capture the surface of a quality drama, that will be enough for now. Time will tell if it finds another gear, but those first two hours suggest a show that’s all façade, no center.
- Join Dennis Perkins here next week and every week thereafter while he attempts to figure out if this show does have another gear.
- My grades for the first two episodes: B-, C.