Last summer saw the debut of Low Winter Sun, a ten episode neo-noir series on AMC. It was set up to be the heir to the station’s crime drama throne, airing after the final episodes of the uber popular Breaking Bad. Developed by Chris Mundy and starring Mark Strong and Lennie James, the series had the talent involved to make something happen. Based on a British miniseries of same name that aired on the BBC back in 2006, the material was dark and gritty and fitting of the “smart television” label that accompanies most AMC programs. Sadly, after just one season, the show was seen as an under-performer by the network and given the ax. Now, with the series out today on DVD, one has to wonder if Low Winter Sun was actually an overlooked gem that had unreasonable expectations put upon it and was given no real chance to develop it’s audience. The answer is yes……and no.
Set against the backdrop of modern day Detroit, Homicide Detective Frank Agnew (Strong) is a cop whose kept his nose mostly clean for his entire career. That is until he’s confronted by his former partner Joe Geddes (James) who asks him to help with a problem with his current partner. And when I say help him with a problem with his partner, I mean the partner is the problem. Through manipulation and the perceived notion of vengence, Frank is convinced by Geddes to bump off fellow detective Brendan McCann and make it look like a suicide for the greater good. Sounds like it could be an interesting series, right? This all happens in the first 10 minutes of the pilot. The real story is Frank and Joe’s attempts to cover up this murder and keep their own department off the trail. It’s no easy task as McCann was a dirty cop who was under investigation by Internal Affairs. Detective Simon Boyd (played by David Costabile) was investigating McCann and is now set on finding the truth regarding his mysterious death. So now Frank and Joe have two problems. Meanwhile, low level hood Damon Callis (James Ransome) and his wife Maya (Sprague Grayden) are making a play to move up in Detroit’s underworld by going behind the back of Skelos, the resident mobster that runs the Greek Town neighbourhood, and set up shop for themselves by killing one of his cocaine dealers and stealing his product. As the story progresses, we watch as these two seemingly separate stories weave together to a muddy and bloody conclusion.
When you watch the series in quick succession without having to wait a week for the next episode, you can see how much time was put into a slow build to the characters. While the story is interesting and at times unpredictable, the main set piece of the show is it’s characters. There is a depth to them that is not explained but experienced. We’re not given a simple roadmap to understanding Frank. Instead, we’re given a jigsaw puzzle….with a couple pieces never fitting right. Over the course of the series, we see him go from a good cop who was put in a bad situation to a desparate cop looking for a way out to a man who doing what must be done to ensure his survival. Like all great noir tales, his actions define him more than his thoughts or feelings. From the outside, the choices he makes are obviously the wrong ones but because he’s deep within the sea confusion and deception, he can’t see that he’s in way over his head. Mark Strong excels with a character like this. Even though he’s doing some pretty vile things at points, we marvel at his unraveling and are even rooting for him to get away with everything. Lennie James’ Geddes character is the flip side of this equation. It seems that as things get worse, he gets better at being the “bad guy”. From manipulating Frank to manipulating the system to manipulating every situation he finds himself in, Geddes is not to be trusted. Even when he’s in some rough situations, James flashes the slightest of smirks to let us know that this a man who’s not worth saving. You want to see him get what’s coming to him. You want to see him punished. But if he’s punished, then so is Frank. That connection is what really makes the series work. These two men are allies and enemies all at the same time. The series really ramps up in the final episode when it looks like neither has a chance in hell of getting away from what’s about to hit them. Two desparate men who’ve told too many lies to find the redemption they seek. The supporting cast is also well developed for the most part, each with a definite character arc that plays out over the season. Damon and Maya’s attempts to get set up as high rollers in Detroit’s drug trade has more than a few ups and downs and brings a great deal of the action in the back half of the episodes. What’s presented amazingly well is that even though they are involved in some pretty seedy activities, they sport a relatively healthy relationship (at least at the start of the series). There are a couple of story arcs that I would have like a bit more closure and development on. Both Frank’s relationship with Detective Dani Kahlil and the backstory on Nick, the war vet who joins Damon’s crew are set up to be important arcs but fizzle out by the final episodes and see no real resolution. Thankfully, neither is integral to the overall plot.
The real problem with the series is that it takes it’s time in the opening episodes in that it take too much time. The slowburn set up is important to the pacing of the show but I feel they took it a little too far. There was no real hook after the first 1o minutes of the first episode. After the initial murder, nothing of major note happens until the 4th episode. These characters are given too much room to breath. Because of this, I can see why the series did not take off on AMC. If the audience had waited around, they would’ve been rewarded handsomely with an exciting conclusion. But with television, you have to keep your audience constantly engaged. Low Winter Sun does not do this until after they have a few episodes under their belt and that’s why the series didn’t benefit from an episodic format. It works better in DVD form because you can watch it in a way that compliments the writing style. This show is meant to be watched 2 or 3 episodes at a time.
If you’re a fan of crime drama set against a city that parallels the coplex beauty of it’s characters, this is a series worth checking out. Low Winter Sun is available wherever DVDs are sold.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!