‘Low Winter Sun’: Killers who just won’t lighten up

Alessandra Stanley / New York Times News Service /

Published Aug 15, 2013 at 05:00AM

“Low Winter Sun” 10 p.m. Sundays, AMC

Film noir doesn’t mean that every scene has to be shot in the dark.

The term refers to movies stained by deception and amorality, not cinematography in black and white. Many variations on the genre were filmed in color, including “Leave Her to Heaven” and “The Last Seduction.” At the moment, one of the best examples on television is “Breaking Bad,” which is set in the pitilessly bright glare of Albuquerque, N.M.

“Low Winter Sun,” a new AMC series that also began Sunday, has a classic film noir premise: A well-meaning sap is tricked into committing murder. In this case, an honest cop intent on avenging a loved one fears that he may have been played. And the wrongdoing unfolds in Detroit, so it doesn’t take much to set a mood of desperation and decline.

Yet “Low Winter Sun” is so clotted with bleak cityscapes, shadowy interiors and brooding portent that the narrative sags under the weight of all that mood-setting. The creators probably wanted to telegraph up front that this is not a CBS-style network procedural, but that’s a given in this golden age of cable. It’s a deadly serious drama, but some of the early scenes are so overwrought that they are almost laughable.

Before any of the characters are introduced, one cop goes nose to nose with another and starts to declaim. “Folks talk about morality like it’s black and white, or maybe they think they are smarter or they are at a cocktail party, acting all pretentious, and then they say it’s gray, but do you know what it really is?” he says menacingly. “It’s a damn strobe, flashing back and forth and back and forth all the time, so all we can do, all we can do, is try to figure out how to see straight enough to keep from getting our heads bashed in.”

“Low Winter Sun,” which was adapted from a British miniseries by the same name, doesn’t need to overreach. It has an intriguing story, an aptly sinister setting and an excellent cast, led by the British actor Mark Strong as Frank Agnew, a homicide detective with a tragedy in his past. Lennie James (“The Walking Dead”) is Joe, a seasoned and able detective who seems to have several agendas that have little to do with crime-solving. David Costabile, whose credits include “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad,” plays an internal affairs detective.

The series presents a dystopian view of urban decay that makes the Baltimore of “The Wire” look almost like Monte Carlo. This Detroit is a fetid no man’s land that law-abiding citizens fled long ago, leaving whole blocks abandoned, houses boarded over and feral dogs roaming empty streets.

There are some amusing touches: On a street of crumbling houses and weedy lawns piled with crushed debris, a green plastic garbage can stands at the curb, ready for pickup — a pale demarcation dividing order and bedlam.

The line between cops and criminals is almost as faint, and eventually that attracts the attention of Internal Affairs.

Violence is an equal-opportunity employer. Damon (James Ransone) is a restless young thug with a policeman on his payroll and a scheme to bypass the reigning crime boss and set up his own drug and prostitution business. His pretty wife couldn’t be more pleased about Damon’s career aspirations: Maya (Sprague Grayden), a bartender, shares her husband’s ruthlessness, but she is more cunning and more patient. She sees the potential in Nick (Billy Lush), a damaged war veteran on psychiatric disability who describes his job qualifications this way: “The only thing I got any training to do is kill people.”

And that’s about it, give or take a few secondary characters. “Low Winter Sun” is a story told over 10 episodes that in the original version was wrapped up in two 90-minute segments.

It’s a Richard Price kind of thriller about cops, killers and cop killers that could benefit from that novelist’s talent for painting a portrait of a city while keeping multiple complex strands of narrative going at once. Instead, Frank’s fate — and the corruption investigation that threatens it — is the driving force of the series. The criminals outside police headquarters are chilling but not all that interesting; nothing in the early episodes suggests that Damon and Maya have many layers besides ambition and savagery.

It’s inevitable for viewers to yearn for the kind of odyssey that series like “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad” provided. “Low Winter Sun” isn’t that, but it’s an entertaining way station.