Summer 2013 Review: Low Winter Sun

12 Aug

Stanley Tucci-lookalike Mark Strong

Here’s what I know about Low Winter Sun after one episode.

There are two main plot strains, both diverging from a detective, Brendan McCann, who is killed in the first scene by two other detectives, Frank, and Joe.  They kill him and then attempt to make it look like a suicide, handcuffing his arm to his car, and driving his car into a lake.

The next day, Internal Affairs comes into the Detroit office of these two detectives asking all sorts of questions about Brendan.  It turns out Brendan was super dirty, though we don’t know the exactly details, and Joe seems to have been involved somehow, leading him to want Brendan, a notorious drunk who could give him away, dead.  Frank, who seemed to want Brendan dead as part of some sort of revenge, seems to honestly know nothing about Brendan’s dirty history and is outraged at Joe for failing to mention these selfish motives.  Soon, the cops find Brendan’s body, so far think it’s a suicide, and also find a body in the trunk of Brendan’s car that Frank and Joe know nothing about.  Frank’s boss puts him in charge of looking into it, which could be problematic since Frank was the one who killed him.

The second strain involves some guys involved with drugs who were paying off Brendan to do some shady stuff for them.  The primary drug plot guy, whose name might be Nick, killed another drug dealer in an early scene, stole some drugs, and is trying to figure out whether Brendan double crossed him or simply didn’t show up because he was drunk when he finds out that Brendan’s done.  There’s some drugs and some major organized crime and some family drama going on, but it’s hard to tell where this is going from the first episode, as this strain is a lot less well defined than the police plot.

It’s grimy, dark, bleak, depressing.  It takes place in Detroit, which is probably the best place currently to set a show if you want to give off that feel, but it feels less like Detroit than the idea of Detroit, or maybe more accurately ’70s urban America when it seemed like every big city was overrun by crime and corruption and on the verge of collapse.  Everything’s super seedy and shady, with that ’70s urban noir French Connection type feel – this is a lousy place to live that’s more seedy underbelly than well, upright overbelly.  Any cop might be on the payroll, and it seems like corruption may be more the norm than the exception, as the boss figure mentions that several people in his position have gone down due to corruption in recent years.  This pervasive atmosphere of a place where the American dream got lost a long time ago down some gutter is the most consistent feature of the show, guiding it when we’re not sure exactly what the show is about otherwise.

Where Low Winter Sun is going – I’m not exactly sure.  Frank clearly has some sort of tragic history involving a woman, who I’m guessing died.  He’s going to dig deeper into whatever the big corruption situation was, particularly involving Joe, who he’s now tied to, thanks to their collective murder. As for the drug plot, it’s less clear.  That story didn’t quite feel like it belonged, except for its tie in with the atmosphere and the dead cop, but I imagine the two stories could meet at some point as Frank investigates.

Yeah, it looks totally hopeless.  There is absolutely no humor or levity of any kind. Yes, it could easily descend into cop clichés. It’s a cop show, and it’s hard for cop shows not to fall into that, and Low Winter Sun certain dips its toes into the cliche pool on more than one occasion.  As I’ve said before, I don’t think we need another cop show right now, and i think the world would be served by a five year moratorium on new cop shows.  Low Winter Sun certainly seems to be another in the middle-aged-white-male-antihero subgroup of dramas, started by Tony Soprano, and promulgated further by Don Draper and Walter White, (and several more lesser versions since including Boardwalk Empire) a genre that’s definitely in danger of jumping the shark.

Still, while I’m not sure there’s potential for greatness here, I do think there’s potential for goodness.  Mark Strong has made a living playing villains and he gets to play a character who seems to be at the least not entirely evil, which for him is a step up on the morality scale. The choice of casting someone as associated with villainy as Strong helps set the tone for the show, along with having the protagonist commit murder in the first scene of the series which seems potentially gimmicky but which I found somewhat compelling. Frank is already morally compromised within five minutes of the series beginning.  Unlike with Draper and White where the instinct is to root for them until you get to know them better, when Frank kills someone right away, the instinct is to root against him.   All he has going for him is that it seems like it’s instinctual to root against everyone in this show, which may make him the good guy in a very relative sense. The show is mightily grim and it certainly begs the question, Is there such a thing as too grim?  Maybe.  Probably.  But I may have a higher tolerance for grim-ness than most.  It’s so far a fairly one note show, built around this atmosphere and tone.  But I don’t think it’s necessarily such a bad note.

Will I watch it again?  Yeah, I think I might.  It was certainly not an instant winner but the abject bleakness appeals to me more than it might to others, and while its attitude could get tired fast, especially depending on how close It sticks to the traditional cop formulas, I think I’m willing to give it a couple of episodes to see if it does.  I didn’t immediately want to watch the next episode which is the sign of a pilot that really does its job, but it passed the minimum test of giving me at least one aspect that I find intriguing, which is the tone.

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