DETROIT (WWJ/AP) – “Low Winter Sun” isn’t a reality show about police in Detroit, the city in which it’s set and filmed. Nor is it a “ripped-from-the-headlines” crime-solving drama like others that have come before.
Yet it aims to be truer, at least on a human level, to the place that in real life is struggling through some of its darkest times and recently became the largest city in the U.S. to file for bankruptcy after decades of decline.
“Everyone is looking for a second chance – and it’s sort of this idea: `What are you willing to do in order to get that in some way?”‘ said Chris Mundy, executive producer, showrunner and writer for the drama. “I wanted to set it in a city that reflected that in some way. Detroit made a lot of sense to me.”
“Low Winter Sun,” which premieres on AMC Sunday at 10 p.m., revives a two-part U.K. miniseries from 2006 and returns actor Mark Strong to the lead role as homicide detective Frank Agnew. It also marks Hollywood’s return to the Motor City as a place to explore crime, following the short-lived ABC drama, “Detroit 1-8-7,” from the 2010-11 season.
The principal actors and creators of “Low Winter Sun” say after the original version, it owes a greater debt to HBO’s “The Wire” and its AMC lead-in, “Breaking Bad,” since “Low Winter Sun” focuses its lens on one unraveling story that takes its detectives into the city’s criminal underworld.
The show, which has been confirmed for an initial run of 10 episodes, begins with Strong’s Agnew and James’ Geddes killing a fellow cop in what appears to be an act of retribution. The story unspools from there, peeling back the consequences from that act.
“This is not a cop show – the police element is the framework, but what you’re actually dealing with are people trying to cope against all odds,” said Strong, a British actor whose film credits include “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Sherlock Holmes,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “John Carter.”
He spoke recently from the desk of his character on the Detroit set in a secure warehouse near the massive, deteriorating Packard automobile plant built more than a century ago that’s increasingly become the target of thieves, metal scrappers, urban explorers and graffiti artists. One scene shot that day features Strong and Lennie James, another veteran British actor who plays Detective Joe Geddes, interviewing a witness to their crime. The dialogue is peppered with references to jobs being outsourced and Detroit’s distant fur-trading past.
Setting and filming the show in Detroit, which at once tries to live up to its promise and live down its problems, makes all the difference, Strong said.
“What it has is a fantastic backdrop because you have a cityscape that is as need as repair as all of the characters are in this show … but we’re not suggesting for a second that everything that goes on in Detroit is dark and down and dirty,” he said. “What we found here is this amazing place to be able to play out all the psychology of all the characters that have been created. … It wouldn’t work in New York or L.A. or anywhere else, to be honest, other than here.”
James said “Low Winter Sun” was “by far the best script that came my way last year.”
“It’s the kind of part I like to play. I like people who have got a kind of internal monologue going on and what they’re putting on the outside isn’t necessarily what’s going on in the inside,” said James, who has appeared in AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” HBO’s “Hung” and the film “Colombiana.” “It’s a really brilliant, simple premise that’s easy to tell and can take you in a million different directions.”
To ensure authenticity even within the fictional realm of “Low Winter Sun,” the producers hired Ira Todd, a Detroit police detective and consultant who also worked on “Detroit 1-8-7.” Todd said the creators of the earlier show wanted to approach it more like “Low Winter Sun,” but ABC executives “had a different vision.”
Todd said his discussions with Mundy, the actors and others have helped develop plotlines and deepen characters. Still, he knows that depicting realism – particularly instances of police and government corruption – could be difficult for some of the city’s staunchest defenders.
“There’s an underground economy that’s crazy – drugs, sex, the whole nine yards,” Todd said. “I think you’re going to hear, `That crap don’t go on,’ but it does go on, and we need to do something about it. I think the show will actually bring that to the forefront.”
For Mundy, a former Rolling Stone journalist who became a screenwriter and producer, being freed from the “whodunit” angle allows the show to “illuminate the humanity of the characters.” That clearly puts it in the universe of “The Wire,” though he’s careful to keep the former series as a source of inspiration and not imitation.
“I don’t mean to presume that we’re doing things as well as them,” Mundy said. “You can draw parallels between Detroit and Baltimore, and Baltimore was a character in that, in such a good way. Let’s try to be that good, but let’s make sure we’re not doing something simply because it’s familiar and somebody … already did it.”
He said AMC is the only network he’s worked with that has told him to “slow down and take more time with the characters.”
“It’s kind of the beauty: You’re allowed to be on your own thing,” he said. “They’re pushing us to fulfill everything we told them we thought it could be.”
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