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'Low Winter Sun' finds high drama on 'other side of the American Dream'

It is impossible to watch the highly touted new AMC drama “Low Winter Sun” without thinking of HBO’s “The Wire.”

I tried. But as I watched the first two episodes of the crime drama set and filmed in Detroit, I kept flashing back to “The Wire” — in a good way.

Based on a British miniseries, “Low Winter Sun,” which premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday, tells the story of a Detroit police detective, Frank Agnew (Mark Strong), who with the help of his partner kills another detective in an act of vengeance. Agnew is then assigned to investigate the death of the man he just killed. It’s one of many nice plot twists.

But that’s the story. And while it is a good one, what elevates “Low Winter Sun” into the category of must-see-if-you-care-about-quality-TV-drama are its vision and sensibility, largely articulated through its depiction of Detroit.

Detroit holds a powerful place in the national psyche, thanks in large part to its 20th-century history as the birthplace of the assembly line and bastion of middle-class economic status for union workers on those lines. It was also a crucible of race and ethnicity with first- and second-generation European immigrants working alongside and vying for good-paying jobs with African-Americans who had come from the South — all looking for a piece of the American Dream.

Having worked as a reporter at the Detroit Free Press from 1976 to 1983, I can tell you that the city never recovered from the riots of the late 1960s. But despite too many corrupt public officials feeding at the trough the last four decades, there was still hope and determination among many of its residents — until the cosmic shift to a global economy took hold and sent Detroit on the road to urban wasteland.

It was made official last month when Detroit became the largest city in American history to declare bankruptcy. Its image on TV has been dominated by scenes of blight and decay — whole blocks of abandoned and falling-down single-family homes and the crumbling, rust-stained walls of vacant factories and warehouses, the detritus of Detroit’s mid-20th-century industrial might.

“Low Winter Sun” captures that visually — and spiritually. That’s the canvas on which creator Chris Mundy and his team of writers and producers paint. But they imbue it with an elegiac dignity, so that even as you are looking at graffiti-covered walls and alleys filled with trash, you feel the power of the vision on which this city was built.

That imagery and the way it is poetically presented are what first made me think of “The Wire.” As I looked at block after block of abandoned single-family homes on screen, I wrote in my notebook, “Are these the iconic Baltimore rowhouses of ‘The Wire’? Is Detroit the new Baltimore of quality TV drama?”

“Visually, Detroit’s just a stunning backdrop in good ways and bad ways,” says Mundy, a former Rolling Stone reporter and editor.

“Everybody [in ‘Low Winter Sun] is trying to get a second chance in a way, and they’re all pushing up against their limits of what they’ll do for a second chance,” he says. “So I wanted a backdrop that had that same feeling — a place that was looking for a second chance. And Detroit just seems perfect.”

Mundy, who wrote for such TV series as “Criminal Minds” and “Cold Case,” uses the word “complicated” to describe his reaction to critics who invoke “The Wire” in writing about his show.

“If anybody thought we were trying to steal their playbook, then we’re doing a lousy job,” he says. “But if anybody thinks, ‘Maybe some day, if we keep doing a good job, then people will talk about us in the same light,’ then it’s the hugest compliment. … To me, ‘The Wire’ is pretty much the best show ever on television. But we’re a different sort of show.”

“Low Winter Sun” is a different sort of show in some ways — at least in its first two episodes. And none of this is to say it’s in the Wire’s league.

For one thing, it does not reach nearly as high as “The Wire,” which not only showed the dysfunction in Baltimore, but also surgically explained who and what were responsible for it. It’s hard to imagine any TV show ever matching “The Wire” in the anthropology of creator David Simon and some of the show’s producers and writers like Ed Burns, a former Baltimore police detective and city schoolteacher.

“We’re not trying to chart the civics of the city,” Mundy says. “We’re just trying to tell the stories of these people in this situation.”

Since some of the core characters are cops, it’s a cop drama — make no mistake about it. “The Wire” was always far more than that — though cop drama is good enough for me when it’s done this well.

But like “The Wire,” the AMC series is intensely concerned with matters of morality.

“On the surface, ‘Low Winter Sun’ is the story of Frank Agnew trying to undo this act [murder] and stay safe and get away with it,” says Mundy. “But it’s not a whodunit. You know who did it in the first minute. It’s really this exploration of [Frank asking], ‘What is wrong with me that I did this thing? And what’s broken inside of me that I’ve come to this place?’ ”

“Folks talk like morality is black and white,” Agnew’s partner, Joe Geddes (Lennie James), says in the opening moments of the pilot. “You know what it’s really like? A goddamn strobe. And all we can do is try to see straight enough to keep from getting our heads bashed in.”

There are concrete connections between the Baltimore urban drama and “Low Winter Sun,” like Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning director Ernest R. Dickerson. The two hours made available for screening were directed by Dickerson, who was also behind the camera for some of the finest episodes of “The Wire,” such as “Mission Accomplished,” the finale to Season 3.

The tone of the final sequence of that episode, with Bubbles (Andre Royo) teaching a younger addict how to survive on a post-apocalyptic urban landscape, permeates the first two episodes of “Low Winter Sun.”

Another link between the two shows is Baltimore native James Ransone, who has a leading role as Damon Callis, an on-the-make gangster scheming to take down a Detroit crime lord. It’s a good role, and Ransone does great things with it — just as he did with the character of “Ziggy” Sobotka in Season 2 of “The Wire.”

After spending six months filming the pilot and first season there, Ransone feels that he’s forged a connection to Detroit — much as he had to Baltimore, where he grew up. He sees the cities and the shows along a TV continuum — part of a continuing media meditation on big cities and the American Dream.

“In chronological terms of an emerging urban narrative, ‘The Wire’ was sort of like David’s and Ed’s requiem on the decay and bureaucratic institutionalization of the city,” says Ransone, who attended Towson’s Carver Center for Arts & Technology. “This [‘Low Winter Sun’] starts from the hypothesis that we’re way beyond ruin. Whereas David and Ed were really taking it apart and making you look at how the bureaucracy was failing, this starts from the position that it’s already failed.”

“Low Winter Sun” is set “on the other side of the American Dream,” in Ransone’s view.

“Because of the blight of Detroit and how it’s decayed, I think it’s very scary for some people to look at it. Now that it’s bankrupt, they see it through this lens of, ‘Oh, my God, it’s broke,’ ” he says.

“Well, the whole American Dream is kind of broke. The question is: What do we do on the other side of the American Dream once we’ve given into the fact that it’s dead? … Now, how do we live?”

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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