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Dead Tree Alert: What Detroit 1-8-7 Owes Detroit

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Illustration by Francisco Caceres for TIME

While I was on vacation, TIME ran my column on the controversy over ABC’s new cop drama Detroit 1-8-7 and whether it’s exploiting a city that has it rough enough to begin with. It’s a personal issue for me because of where I was born and raised (not Detroit itself, but the Detroit area); I know the effects, not just nationally but even within Detroit and its suburbs, of literally decades of being labeled as Crime City.

I don’t agree with the argument that it’s inherently wrong to base a show in the city’s (very real) problems, nor do I think the show is obligated to cheerlead. But the producers have a special obligation to get it right.

Why should they have any obligation at all? In part there’s the burden of representation. Few people here in New York City care about unrealistic cop shows set here because there have been so many, good and bad. For Detroit, 1-8-7 will be almost all there is. (Currently there’s also HBO’s Hung, bleak in its own way, on a less-watched network and set largely in the suburbs; the city also makes occasional reality-show appearances, as in A&E’s The First 48.) There’s also the fact that ABC is clearly banking on Detroit’s reputation to help sell the show. Putting “Detroit” in the title seems almost as if to say, “Hey, folks, you like murder? Well this show isn’t just about ordinary murder: this is murder Detroit-style!” If the city is lending an air of authenticity to the show, it deserves authenticity back.

How well is Detroit 1-8-7 doing by the city? So far, I can only judge by the original pilot, which is being reshot. (Partly to drop a mockumentary framing device the producers abandoned when the real-life city banned camera ride-alongs after a girl was shot to death in the presence of a reality-TV crew.) Judged by the standards of broadcast cop shows, it’s got promise, though not spectacular; it has voice and personality, and seems more interested in the characters behind the stories than many procedural cop shows. If I weren’t especially interested in the subject matter, I’d probably try to check out a couple more episodes, though I wouldn’t be setting a Season Pass yet.

Whether somewhat-better-than-average will be good enough is the question. One thing that made The Wire such a fantastic picture of Baltimore, though hardly a flattering one, was David Simon’s journalistic zeal for getting the details right (now manifest on Treme). That’s going to be hard to pull off on ABC, which needs to pull a bigger audience and is likely to push the show to a simpler-to-follow, more procedural approach. After shooting the pilot in Atlanta (not a great PR move, though producers say it was logistically necessary, because winter weather in Michigan could have blown the unforgivingly tight pilot schedule), the show has moved production to Detroit, and it seems interested in the city’s local flavor and social context. On the other hand, critics have already pointed out that “187,” after all, is police code for homicide in California, not Michigan (though it’s used more widely as slang).

Obviously it would be unfair to expect a broadcast cop show to be The Wire. (Or to judge any show by whether it’s as good as the best TV drama ever made.) But a reasonable model might be The Wire’s predecessor Homicide: Life on the Streets (also about Baltimore, also with a term for murder in the title) or NYPD Blue: big-network police shows told stories about people, not just cases. TV may not need another cop show, but Detroit could use sustained, worthwhile attention, so here’s hoping they pull it off.

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