There are a few TV dramas that take pride in their slow but confident pacing, notably "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men," and "Rectify." There are dramas that hold back connections and critical information, like "The Wire," to force the viewer to experience the chaos of the world they're portraying. And there are dramas that twist up morality until you find yourself rooting for cold-blooded murderers — "The Sopranos" and "Dexter," of course. These celebrated series are often the best that TV has to offer, as they experiment with narrative and as they challenge us both intellectually and philosophically.
AMC's "Low Winter Sun" really, really, really wants to be one of those shows. It dabbles in the quiet spaces, plot leaps, and complicated antiheroes that are all signals of TV greatness. It features actors from prestigious series, including David Costabile, who was Gale Boetticher on "Breaking Bad," and James Ransone from "The Wire." And it airs on AMC, the respected channel that has lifted basic cable to the top of the Emmys. But the 10-episode show, which is based on a two-part 2006 British miniseries, just doesn't reach its ambitions. It comes off as a straining, overly serious wannabe.
British actor Mark Strong starred in the original "Low Winter Sun," and he puts on his American accent to star in the remake, too, as homicide detective Frank Agnew. When we first meet Frank, he and Detective Joe Geddes (Lennie James) are killing another cop in what appears to be a gruesome act of revenge. The rest of the series unfurls from that undertaking, after Frank and Joe make the death look like a suicide. Internal Affairs comes onboard — and was already onboard, secretly, since the dead cop was under investigation. And the rest of the police department start asking questions. The twist: Frank is assigned the murder case. Meanwhile, plot strands emerge involving the drug underground of Detroit, where the show is set.
Along with the pretentious atmosphere, which is super dark as it tours the Motor City's broken down architecture, "Low Winter Sun" features some ham-handed Big Acting. James, in particular, seems to be shooting for an Emmy, or maybe he's just forgetting that he's on TV and not on a theatrical stage. Strong aims to be the complicated but quiet type, but he doesn't convey depth so much as hollowness. Billy Lush plays the heck out of Nick Paflas, a combat veteran who seems to have a bad case of PTSD. His troubled expressions and explosions are too far over the top to have any true resonance.
Early in the premiere, Sunday night at 10 after "Breaking Bad," Joe gives a little lecture to Frank that, I think, is meant to be the show's central statement: "Folks talk about morality like it's black and white. . . . You know what it really is, 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, ain't that right?" Spare us, please. That the writers, led by executive producer Chris Mundy, were compelled to give us this overwrought proclamation at the top of the series is misguided; they're showing off their grand concepts before they've earned our interest in them.
There are far worse qualities than high aspirations, and "Low Winter Sun" has some potential lurking behind its noir bravado. If Mundy and his crew can ease up on the grimness, bring dimension to the characters beyond their overcooked work stress, and tone down the actors, maybe something worthy will be left standing. It's certainly possible. But right now, with "Breaking Bad" back, with "The Bridge" and "Ray Donovan" providing textured and entertaining drama, and with the excellence of "Orange Is the New Black" awaiting anyone with streaming Netflix, there's almost no compelling reason to take on this new show and wait for it to improve.