"Low Winter Sun," which begins Sunday on AMC, remakes a 2006 British series of the same name and with the same starring actor, Mark Strong, as in the Edinburgh-set original. He has left that accent at home and picked up a new one for the duration.
Adapted by Chris Mundy ("Criminal Minds," "Cold Case"), it's a story of cops and criminals now set in the city-on-the-way-up-on-the-way-down that is Detroit. Strong plays Det. Frank Agnew, whose clean-shaven head, shot close-up and at length, occupies the very first shot of the series. Tears are streaming down his face. He is about to help another police detective — Joe Geddes, played by Lennie James (also English, but a face well known in American television) — kill a third police detective, whose name need not concern us.
Detective three is Geddes' corrupt partner, whom Geddes has blamed for the death of Agnew's' girlfriend, a Russian prostitute — that's why Agnew wants him dead. (There is no body.) And so begins an imperfect crime.
One condition of basic cable in the age of "Breaking Bad," which airs directly before "Low Winter Sun," is a sense of heightened expectation. New series are under some pressure (exacerbated by critics, of course, who want to be astonished) to deliver not just entertainment, fun or intelligent diversion but potentially to be the greatest thing ever, to make a splash, take it to the edge, blow your head off, change the course of television as we know it.
"Low Winter Sun" has clearly got that memo. Directed by Ernest Dickerson — who shot several Spike Lee movies and has directed multiple episodes of "The Wire," "Treme" and "Dexter" — it comes on strong and stays there, in a state of almost constantly heightened tension supported by the restless camera work, which spends a lot of time in close like a fighter in a clinch, and a much-present moody soundtrack.
"Folks talk like morality is black and white," Geddes tells Agnew in the opening scene, to let you know right away that some deep thinking has been done about this, that we are about to sample the premium whiskey and not just the well brand. "But you know what it really is? It's a damn strobe, flashing back and forth, back and forth all the time."
The very title betokens something serious, in a northern way, consistent with the dark and dreary period of crime drama, often imported and remade, we're living through. But when you run so consistently, seriously serious, you run the risk of your invented world seeming less rather than more real — so that when Geddes' mother offers to make him a patty melt, that simple line sounds jarring and false. Not every crime drama has to be "Hamlet," let alone "Breaking Bad," both of which know how to make a joke.
At the same time there is nothing in the first two episodes — all I've seen — that strikes me as unlikely as much does in, say, "The Bridge," another recent basic-cable crime drama with Big Themes, begging to be taken seriously. That all is not what it seems is made explicit pretty quickly, which, given that there are eight episodes left to go, would indicate that this condition will be ongoing.
But there is a fairly big cast of characters to fill that time, as the connections (there are always connections) are eventually revealed, notably a gang of young Greeks looking to make their way, in a small way, in the world of crime. (The relationship of its married leaders, played by Damon Callis and Sprague Grayden, may remind "Justified" viewers of Boyd and Ava Crowder, or the Macbeths, perhaps.)
Its sometimes distracting and oppressive aspirations aside, "Low Winter Sun" does nevertheless strike me as promising, solid at its core, powered by plausible cross-purposes. Strong and James are excellent. It's nice to see Ruben Santiago-Hudson, formerly the captain on "Castle," back running a police station. And Detroit, when the camera pulls back to let you see it, also has a lot to tell you, just standing there.
'Low Winter Sun'
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times