It’s easy to see why an American network would want to remake the 2006 British miniseries Low Winter Sun. It was a bleak, twisty cop thriller about flawed people doing awful things for the right reasons featuring great performances and oozing atmosphere. Best of all, it was a two-part miniseries that clocked in at only two-and-a-half hours, leaving ample room for expansion. Remaking it seems like a no-brainer, right? After all, brooding male anti-heroes have been trendy ever since Tony Soprano, and AMC will soon be losing its both Walter White and Don Draper. Instead of redefining or evolving their brand, they seem to have decided to just stick to what’s worked for them in the past.
The problem with the pilot for Low Winter Sun, however, is that it lacks everything that made the opening episodes of Mad Men and Breaking Bad so refreshing. The former was so precisely stylized that even if viewers weren’t immediately captivated by Don Draper’s womanizing ways, they could still be drawn in by its lush production design, and the latter understood that the best way to bring viewers on board is to open with something they’ve never seen before (say what you will about a guy in the middle of the desert in his tighty-whities, it’s memorable). Low Winter Sun looks just like every other cop drama on television, and it’s so focused on getting the plot rolling that it forgets to give us a reason to care.
The episode plays out exactly like the first quarter of the British miniseries, with Detective Frank Agnew (Mark Strong, reprising his role from the original) and Detective Joe Geddes (Lennie James) murdering the latter’s partner, Brendan McCann (Michael McGrady) and making it look like a suicide. Agnew does it because he believes McCann killed the woman he loved; Geddes just seems hate him. Of course, their plan starts to go awry when a body is found in the trunk of McCann’s car and internal affair investigator Simon Boyd (Breaking Bad’s David Costabile) shows up to investigate his dirty deeds. The pilot suggests most of the drama will revolve around their efforts to keep from getting caught.
This has all the makings of a quality drama, but it feels like too much of the same too late in the game. Strong and James are both immensely talented performers, but neither fares well here; Strong is a bit too monotonous, and James enunciates his lines a bit too precisely, as if they’re struggling to find a way to make stale dialogue seem important (or perhaps the two British actors are just trying to ease their way into an American accent). When the script isn’t stealing dialogue from the original miniseries word-for-word, it’s replacing it with stilted exposition or heavy-handed exchanges about the themes of the show. For example, the UK version opened with Agnew implicitly questioning his decision to kill McCann by debating the ethics of eating lobster. This one finds Geddes just directly stating his worldview: “Folks talk about morality like it’s black-and-white… But you know what it really is? It’s a damn strobe, flashing back-and-forth. All we can do is try to figure out how to see straight enough to keep from getting our heads bashed in.” That’s an idea worth exploring, but who talks like that?
The first two episodes are directed by Ernest Dickerson, a veteran of shows like Dexter and The Wire. Where the original miniseries favored a color palette of muted grays and blues, he photographs this version in browns and blacks, lending an aura of lived-in dirt and grime to most of the locations—the police station feels ancient—and providing the proceedings with a welcome sense of place. The rest of the direction and editing feels perfunctory, and I can only hope the series continues to use its Detroit setting to differentiate this Low Winter Sun from its UK counterpart. Often times the best way to revive stale tropes is to move them to a unique location, and The Motor City certainly fits the bill. It’s been through tough times, but as the theme song states, “I ain’t no quitter… Ain’t nobody gonna hold me down.”
There is one subplot new to the American version. It follows Damon Callis (James Ransone) and his wife Maya (Sprague Grayden), two low-level criminals who were planning to use ties with McCann to take down a local crime boss. This storyline provides AMC with an opportunity to differentiate this Low Winter Sun from its UK counterpart and to explore the underbelly of a city on the verge of economic collapse. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the pilot to suggest Low Winter Sun will be anything other than a plot-centered carbon-copy of a superior original property. I’ll keep watching for now, but Agnew puts it best at the end of the episode: “I don’t know if I can look at this.”