Tuned In

TV Weekend: Low Winter Sun and Detroit as Urban Desert

Low Winter Sun, a bleak, bleak cop drama that uses Detroit as an apocalyptic open-air amphitheater, may not be disaster porn, but it's at least disaster cheesecake.

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Alicia Gbur/AMC

Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Mark Strong in Low Winter Sun's Detroit

One of the many, many things worth praising about Breaking Bad–which begins its final run of episodes this Sunday–is how it uses New Mexico not just as a location but as a theme, a commentary, another dimension. The series is set in Albuquerque, but some of the most memorable settings are in the desert–Walter White waiting with a gun in his tighty-whities, Walt and Gus staring each other down gunfighter-style across a wasteland. The show’s supersaturated, unforgiving light and use of exposed expanses create a sense, amid all the show’s darkness, of a kind of moral microscope: the wicked may win battles, but no evil can truly go unseen.

Low Winter Sun, which premieres after Breaking Bad, is also a story of grim men doing bad deeds in a quasi-allegorical, desolate landscape. The difference here is that that blighted landscape is an American city, Detroit, that is still home to hundreds of thousands of people. The opening credits pan over graffiti, shells of houses, blasted lots, “We Buy Gold” shops, and vacant streets. When we see Detroit cop Frank Agnew (Mark Strong) leave home, he walks out the door, picks up some garbage off his lawn, and sees a spray-painted boarded-up house that looks like the wreckage of Katrina. Ten seconds and one B-roll of an abandoned factory later, a dog runs toward the camera with a rat carcass in its mouth. Bon appetit!

Sun, a series adaptation of a British miniseries (which also starred Mark Strong) is, after the two episodes I’ve seen, a unremarkable in itself: a paint-by-the-numbers serious-cable series where all the numbers indicate a shade of black. It follows the tense, claustrophobic internal-affairs investigation after Frank is led into killing another cop by his partner, Joe Geddes (Lennie James). It has the outer trappings of quality drama, but no seeming animating ideas beyond: Damn, this is dark, am I right? Damn! Dammmmmmmmmmn.

I was intrigued to see it, though, because I grew up near Detroit, which was not a popular TV location in my childhood the way Chicago or L.A. were. I did not exactly expect, nor did I want, a Chamber of Commerce postcard slapping a positive image on a city beset by population declines, unemployment, and now bankruptcy. But I did hope that, as in The Wire, the people, the quirks, and, yes, the troubles of Detroit would integrate themselves into the show’s story and its voice. Instead, Detroit–though its ruins are shot in Low Winter Sun with haunting beauty–seems most attractive to this show for its emptiness, as a stage to isolate tortured men doing desperate things at the end of times. Low Winter Sun may not be disaster porn, but at minimum, it is often disaster cheesecake.

Look, I can’t exactly call the city’s depiction in Sun dishonest. I know what those streets look like. A few years ago, I wrote about how the city’s long narrative of decline, over four decades’ worth, has seeped into its own popular culture: living in and around there, “you were raised among reminders that things used to be better, once, before you came along.” No one in and around Detroit is under any illusions about what Detroit is like, believe me.

But Low Winter Sun does feel so far, though, like a missed, or at least not-yet-realized, opportunity. One side effect of the boom in ambitious TV dramas–and for that matter sitcoms–has been location, location, location. TV isn’t just a carousel of Manhattan, Los Angeles, and various distinguishable suburbs represented by living-room sets. Justified is a story, and a history, of Harlan County life. Even in Parks and Recreation, Pawnee, Indiana, is fictional but detailed and thought-through. From Girls’ microclimate of Williamsburg to the rich melange of Treme’s New Orleans, the setting of these shows help create their culture and character.

Essential to that is creating the sense of a larger world and culture of people beyond the central characters. But though Low Winter Sun looks solidly like Detroit, it doesn’t particularly sound like it; that is, there’s really not much sense that the glowering cops or the strung-out crooks it circles around could not just as easily be in New York or Seattle or Philadelphia. I can’t blame that on the actors, either; Strong and James, both British, put in convincing performances. And I doubt that the show’s producers set out to fetishize Detroit’s bleakness for its own sake; to some extent, the portrayal is probably an offshoot of the grimness and claustrophobia of the story itself, which tightens hermetically around central characters rather than expanding outward.

But there’s a way of giving a city a voice in a series without whitewashing its problems. There have, in fact, been shows set in and around Detroit lately that have done just that. Detroiters were initially anxious that the short-lived ABC drama Detroit 187 would simply use the city as a buffet table of murder. But surprisingly well for a network procedural cop show, it folded in the cultures and specific problems of Detroit; one episode covered the urban-blight phenomenon of reclaiming vast abandoned tracts as city farms. (There were slip-ups, of course, such as calling pop “soda.” Come on!) And whatever problems of tone HBO’s male-prostitution comedy Hung had, it did a good job of using Detroit and its suburbs to strike a larger, recession-era theme of people being driven to extremes to pay the bills.

In other words, you can be honest–painfully so–about the condition of Detroit without simply using it as a vast, open-air amphitheater of ruin. Two episodes in, Low Winter Sun at least shows occasional signs of trying to capture Detroit’s culture–it nods to the area’s vast Middle Eastern population, for instance, with a Chaldean female detective. And a long feature on the making of the show in the Detroit Free Press suggests the producers are sincerely working at it. AMC is patient with its shows, so I’m hoping if this one sticks around, its use of setting becomes less atmospheric and more organic. Detroit isn’t empty yet. Low Winter Sun doesn’t need to be, either.

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