In 2007, AMC was best known for what it was not: not the theater chain that shares its name, not a place for original content. The fledgling channel had broadcast one homegrown Western and was still mostly airing American movie classics when it premiered “Mad Men” that year, and then, a year later, “Breaking Bad.”
Just like that – one, two – AMC made excellent television look easy. It is not. AMC has spent the years since making it look much harder. Its new crime drama, the stifling, dreary, enervating “Low Winter Sun,” which premiered Sunday night right before “Breaking Bad” and does not benefit from the comparison, makes it look hardest of all.
Let’s take out the Quality-TV Cliche Checklist, spread it on the table, rub out the wrinkles, and begin: “Low Winter Sun,” based on a two-part British miniseries of the same name, opens with the show’s leading man, Frank Agnew (Mark Strong), drinking too much in order to gin up the courage to murder someone (antihero, check; violence, check). Frank is a cop in Detroit (geographic location that hints at the squalid inner life of its characters, check) and the man he is about to murder, Brandon, is also a cop, a dirty one (moral ambiguity, check).
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Frank’s accomplice, a detective named Joe (Lennie James), insists that Brandon brutally slaughtered Frank’s maybe-prostitute girlfriend (sexual violence, check; antihero with a soft spot for prostitutes, check). Frank and Joe do the deed beneath a flickering fluorescent light and, to the strains of a rock song that sounds something like the Rolling Stones covering “A Day in the Life” (Scorsese and “Mad Men” influence, check, check) and try to make it look like a suicide.
The next morning, Frank arrives at his decrepit precinct, just ahead of internal affairs. IA was investigating Brandon, whom they can’t locate. Frank becomes suspicious that Joe, who was Brandon’s partner, might not have been telling him everything (who can you trust?, check), even as he is tasked with finding the murderer of the guy he murdered. All of this is filmed in really, really low light (darkness, check).
The show that “Low Winter Sun” is most obviously indebted to is “The Wire.” Like “The Wire,” it wants the city “character,” but unlike “The Wire,” it seems to know only Detroit stereotypes: dangerous, dying, once great.
Do the characters resemble actual human beings? The hard-boiled, stressed-out, depressed types on “Low Winter Sun” do not. They all seem to be suffering from the same malaise, one that makes them violent, miserable and likely to conduct all conversations in stage whispers.
It tries to make up for what it lacks in originality with unending bleakness – as if being relentlessly somber were proof of quality. The results are beyond claustrophobic. All the characters want out. So did I.