Pop quiz: name the hourlong cable drama that (a) stars a rugged British actor as a troubled, charismatic police officer; (b) follows the exploits of a sprawling cast of detectives and drug dealers, both black and white; and (c) takes place in a notoriously crime-ridden and impoverished postindustrial American city.
Sorry, trick question. The correct answer used to be The Wire, the brilliant, heartrending panorama of Baltimore’s overlapping institutions—the cops, the dealers, the schools, the unions, the government, the press—that aired on HBO from 2002 to 2008.
But as of Sunday night, there will be another correct answer, because that’s when Low Winter Sun, a new crime drama set in Detroit, debuts on AMC.
The two shows are so similar—premise, tone, characters, milieu—that comparisons are inevitable. And it’s not hard to imagine that’s what AMC was going for. In June 2011, the network announced that Mad Men would be concluding its run in 2014 after seven seasons; two months later, we learned that Breaking Bad would be wrapping up in 2013 after an extended fifth season.
Low Winter Sun is the first scripted original series to premiere on AMC since those announcements. (Like Netflix's House of Cards and HBO's Veep, it is a retooled version of a popular British program.) The show arrives with the network at a crossroads, as observers begin to question whether AMC can continue to produce the kind of sophisticated dramas that have transformed it over the last six years from a vintage movie rerun channel into a true HBO competitor. “I would love to say there’s no pressure,” Joel Stillerman, head of original programming, recently told The New York Times. “But that would be a lie.”
Seen through that prism, Low Winter Sun seems like a logical next step. Back in 2002, HBO followed its initial flurry of transformative original programming—Oz, Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under—with a bleak little series about Baltimore. The Wire never got good ratings, but it was so acclaimed by critics and adored by fans that it quickly cemented HBO’s growing reputation as the premier destination for cable drama. Today, AMC has its cash cow: The Walking Dead’s weekly viewership is more than three times the size of Mad Men’s. What it needs is a prestige enhancer.
‘Low Winter Sun’ may be a murder story, but it’s not a whodunit.
And so we have Low Winter Sun: yet another bleak little series about the antiheroes of 21st-century urban America. About good guys who do bad things (and vice versa). As one character puts it in the pilot, delivering what amounts to manifesto for the Age of the Antihero, “Folks talk about morality like it’s black and white ... but do you know what it really is? It’s a damn strobe, flashing back and forth and back and forth all the time. So all we can do is figure out how to see straight enough to keep from getting our heads bashed in.”
The question now—the question that will determine whether AMC has made the right move with Low Winter Sun—is whether the show itself is any good.
Based on the two episodes I’ve been allowed to see, my answer is ... maybe. It has potential, but I’ll need to see more to know for sure. And that, to be honest, is yet another way that Low Winter Sun is like The Wire.
Low Winter Sun may be a murder story, but it’s not a whodunit. We learn in the first seconds of the pilot who the killers are: a pair of Detroit homicide detectives—the clenched, haunted Frank Agnew; the sly, seductive Joe Geddes—who drown their drunken, abusive, crooked, and apparently murderous colleague Brendan McCann in a dirty restaurant sink, then handcuff the corpse to the steering wheel of his own car and propel him into the Detroit River.
As Agnew—who kills McCann because he thinks McCann killed his girlfriend—Mark Strong (Zero Dark Thirty, Sherlock Holmes) reprises his role from the original British miniseries, and he’s terrific: a big, bald knot of conscience and anger. As Geddes, McCann’s former partner, Lennie James initially seems a little too hammy, but we soon discover that his character is playing a part as well—a part designed to manipulate Agnew and conceal Geddes’s own corruption.
Without a killer to chase, Low Winter Sun must find another device to drive the narrative. Its solution—a tangle of suspicion that spreads from a police unit to local drug ring—is clever and well constructed.
The day after Geddes and Agnew kill McCann, they learn that Internal Affairs was already probing their victim; now the patient, officious Det. Simon Boyd (Breaking Bad’s David Costabile) is determined to figure out how McCann died. Before long Agnew is investigating a murder he committed and realizing that his co-conspirator may have been conspiring against him.
Meanwhile, the dealer McCann was colluding with, Damon Callis (played by James Ransone, a.k.a. Ziggy Sobotka from Season 2 of The Wire), is moving to increase his share of the Detroit drug market in the vacuum left by McCann’s death—a decision that seems destined to complicate Agnew and Geddes’s calculations. Toss in a violent Iraq War vet, a beautiful but harrowed barmaid, a fellow detective who’s both fond and suspicious of Agnew, and plenty of grim postapocalyptic shots of rotting row houses, feral lots, bloodthirsty dogs, and well-used drug paraphernalia, and you’re looking at exactly the sort of coiled dramatic contraption that’s been known to generate lots of heat in the past.
And if it hasn’t yet, that doesn’t mean it won’t. For me, The Wire was the same. When David Simon’s masterpiece debuted in 2002, I assumed it was just another show about cops and criminals. I didn’t start watching until four years later, and even then, it took me three or four episodes to get that Simon’s detectives and dealers were so much more human than their counterparts on other networks. It wasn’t until the second season that I realized that The Wire was more than just another crime show: it was a show about an entire city.
Given Low Winter Sun’s DNA, I don’t expect it to head in a vastly different direction. But it could swell up in episodes three, four, and five—it could expand, both outward and inward—and start to become a bigger series. There’s no reason Frank Agnew can’t be as riveting as Walter White or Jimmy McNulty. And Detroit is even more fascinatingly dysfunctional than Baltimore.
Or Low Winter Sun could sputter instead. By betting on it, AMC is betting that the Age of the Antihero isn’t over yet. That we have yet to exhaust the Tony Soprano template. That there is still enough juice in these stories to sustain a network. That what worked in 2002 will work again in 2013.
I’ll be tuning in—for the next few weeks, at least—to see if they’re right.