AMC knows that its time with Breaking Bad is drawing to an end, and it’s on a deadline to come up with another driven, mesmerising drama that will keep fans on the edge of their seats and inflaming the internet with commentary. So producers followed the formula that seems to be working so well everywhere else: they took a British drama and attempted to adapt it for US sensibilities. The result is Low Winter Sun, currently airing right after Breaking Bad in an attempt to capture viewers and prepare them for the inevitable transition to a world without Walter White.
Set in Detroit, the series follows two police detectives who kill another after discovering that he’s deep in a corruption scandal. As one might expect, the situation almost immediately spins out of their control, and the episodes take us through the series of events that follows as the police department conducts an investigation into the death of their compatriot, and looks into the corruption that tainted him before death. The most compelling character by far is Joe Geddes (Lennie James), the morally ambiguous detective who spearheads the murder; by contrast, his partner in crime Frank Agnew (Mark Strong) comes off weaker and much less interesting.
Low Winter Sun thrusts viewers directly into the action, opening the series with the murder of Brendan McCann (Michael McGrady) and subsequent coverup job. Then, the larger story is slowly unveiled in a series of flashbacks to put the story into perspective. It’s an established narrative technique that can work very well, but here it feels somewhat choppy and put together after the fact, creating a swirl of characters and places that are somewhat difficult to follow, not least because you have difficulty caring about many of them to begin with.
Part of that may be because Low Winter Sun is banking on the popularity of the antihero, and that trend may be waning. While there will always be a beloved place in text for characters who are morally grey at best and sometimes outright evil, pop cultural desire for it doesn’t seem to be big at the moment. People have gotten their fill with a number of fantastic series—Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, True Blood, and more, and they may be sated for the time being. What goes around comes around, sure, and inevitably it will come into vogue again, but in this particular case, Low Winter Sun may be a little much for an oversaturated market, attempting as it does to capitalise on the antihero and adapted Brit drama trends at the same time.
And this is not a drama that will sit easy with US audiences. It’s slow, mellow, very noir. The sluggish, laid-back narrative style and tone can work fantastically well, but it’s not quite as action-packed as The Wire, a series that’s coming up frequently in comparison, and it doesn’t have the aggressive punch of a series that wants to keep viewers focused on the screen. It might work better with a faster pace, or an injection of humour, but as it is, it may be too rich and dense for many US viewers; which is not to say that US television consumers aren’t capable of sophisticated tastes, but simply to note that their tastes historically vary from those of their compatriots across the pond.
While Scandinavians and British enjoy slow-moving dramas (the Scandinavians are probably the most famous for this), viewers in the US need crisper, sharper drama alleviated with humorous interjections. And while they love their antiheroes, especially if they come in underdog form, that alone isn’t enough to draw and hold them when it comes to television. What works for programmes like Breaking Bad isn’t just Walt’s slide into increasing moral decay, but the show’s fast pacing, great dialogue, thinky plot development, and, of course, stunning cinematography.
There’s another aspect to Low Winter Sun that’s chilling, and it’s the presence of Detroit; this is a phrasing I use carefully, because the city is cast as a character of its own. Right from the first episode, it’s clear the producers wanted to display the sharpest of so-called ‘ruin porn,’ showcasing a Detroit in decay, a Detroit with stray dogs carrying dead animals through the streets, a Detroit with boarded-up windows and failing businesses, a grimy, dirty, filthy, dying city. This a Detroit of corruption and death, which perhaps serves as a great metaphorical backdrop for a show all about the evils of the human psyche, but it’s not reflective of the larger Detroit, of a city trying to rebuild itself, of a city that is in many ways succeeding in its endeavor to break out of economic depression.
There’s no community revitalisation here, engagement by citizens to bring the city back block by block, reclamation of destroyed areas in the name of the community. It’s disappointing to see this destroyed cliched ruin of Detroit, where the city is reduced to a picturesque mess instead of the vibrant, living place that it is. The world of Low Winter Sun presents a fantastic opportunity not to show Detroit on its knees, but rather a city revitalising and pushing out the old guard, just as our characters are facing a changing police force.
As a gritty crime drama, Low Winter Sun may nominally succeed, but it’s unlikely to become a cult favourite or a critical darling.
Photo by brokinhrt2, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license