In 'Low Winter Sun,' cops and criminals claw for light

Mark Strong (left) as Frank Agnew, homicide detective and killer; and David Costabile as Simon Boyd, a self-righteous internal affairs investigator, in "Low Winter Sun."
Mark Strong (left) as Frank Agnew, homicide detective and killer; and David Costabile as Simon Boyd, a self-righteous internal affairs investigator, in "Low Winter Sun." (FRANK OCKENFELS / AMC)
Posted: August 11, 2013

Barely two minutes in, the first episode of Low Winter Sun serves up a cold-blooded murder, all the more brutal because the killers are cops.

As is the victim.

AMC's bleak, brutal crime thriller premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. with a 10-episode first season. It has received mixed reviews, with some critics praising its uncompromising vision and others faulting it as dark but not deep.

Set in a particularly bleak section of Detroit, the first episode opens in an empty restaurant. Homicide detectives Frank Agnew (Mark Strong) and Joe Geddes (Lennie James) have spent the evening plying their colleague Brendan McCann (Michael McGrady) with booze. Disoriented, compliant, McCann barely puts up a fight when his colleagues plunge his head under water in one of the kitchen's large sinks.

From the little information we're given, we gather that McCann was corrupt, greedy, sadistic, and a murderer.

McCann has killed Frank's lover, or so Joe insists, and cut up her body. Joe spins a silky story worthy of the snake in Eden, egging Frank on, telling him it's right and just that he exact vengeance. Only later do we learn that Joe has his own, rather ignoble, reasons for wanting McCann dead.

Low Winter Sun is based on a three-hour British TV film from 2006 starring the remarkable Strong as Frank. Moved from London to Detroit and kitted out with a quintessentially American feel, the series retains its leading star.

Frank spends much of his energy holding in a seething volcano of anger, disappointment, fear, self-hatred. One of Detroit's most respected and decorated cops, Frank has never lost control - until now.

"It's just such a fantastic, exciting, gripping beginning," said series creator and writer Chris Mundy, who retained British writer Simon Donald's original opening scene. "The framework of the pilot comes directly from the British" original.

Though Donald had only three hours to develop the story, Mundy has an entire season to play with.

"We try to go deeply into Frank's psychology to find out why he got himself in a situation where he felt his only option was to kill," Mundy said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles a day after he wrapped production in Detroit.

McCann's murder is the spark that ignites the story. The engine that gets it going is Frank and Joe's attempts to cover up their involvement and to dodge an internal affairs corruption investigation led by the annoyingly self-confident, self-righteous Simon Boyd (David Costabile, of Suits).

They leave in their wake a growing body count.

"Yes, it's a dark show. It's a dark story. Absolutely. And it's a very grown-up story," said Mundy, who worked as a writer and co-executive producer on Hell on Wheels, Criminal Minds, and Cold Case.

"But I think there are lighter moments, too. We wanted it to be a ride and to feel like we are really going for it."

Strong isn't the only Brit in the production. Compatriot Lennie James gives a riveting turn as Joe, a remarkable, frightening, paradoxical man who seems to be motivated simultaneously by good and evil, charity and greed, love and hate.

"His relationship with Frank is extremely strong," James, 47, in a phone chat from his home in Los Angeles. "We are married for better or worse by the act we committed together, and plunged into a deeply dysfunctional and unhappy marriage."

Low Winter Sun plays off its police story against a second narrative thread that follows some of the city's top crime lords, the same power-hungry moguls who corrupt police officers with payoffs and blackmail schemes.

In another bit of dramatic irony, while the police have unhappy, even violent interrelationships, would-be drug kingpin Damon Callis (James Ransone) and his wife, Maya (Sprague Grayden), have a picture-perfect marriage.

Grayden said Low Winter Sun features particularly strong female characters.

"It was exciting to see a woman in a marriage who not only is a full partner, but who had different opinions from her husband," Grayden, 33, said from her summer cabin in northern Ontario. "Maya can challenge [Damon] and yet be supportive to him."

One of the most impressive and haunting characters in Low Winter Sun is Detroit itself, where the series was filmed.

Long a symbol of postindustrial decay, the city gives the drama a ravaged landscape. Starkly beautiful in some scenes, it has the haunted feel of a graveyard in others.

"It almost looks like a tornado came through, a hurricane, and shifted the whole landscape," James said. "Yet what happened to Detroit was a slow-moving catastrophe . . . that started 40, 50, or maybe 60 years ago."

Cops and criminals alike seem trapped, survivors of a catastrophe desperately reaching out for light.

"But these are survivors with pride, who kick and claw for a second chance," Mundy said. "That's what this story is about, people looking for a second chance at life."


Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 2156-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

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