In tonight's premiere of AMC's "Low Winter Sun" (10 p.m.), based on a 2006 British miniseries of the same name, there are two primary stories introduced that seem destined to intersect. But only one of them is engrossing from the start.
While scenes with a crime crew drag, in part because it's not always clear what's going on with them, anytime the focus shifts to crooked cops Frank Agnew (Mark Strong, "Zero Dark Thirty") and Joe Geddes (Lennie James, "The Walking Dead"), "Low Winter Sun" proves to be a gripping drama with a vibe most reminiscent of "The Wire."
Rather than Baltimore, "Low Winter Sun" is set in another urban wasteland, Detroit, where Frank and Geddes are cops.
The series opens with Frank preparing to join Geddes in murdering another cop after Geddes leads Frank to believe the cop they are about to kill murdered Frank's Russian prostitute girlfriend.
Frank, aptly identified in AMC's marketing campaign as "Good Man. Cop. Killer," is clearly conflicted about what he's about to do but his sense of vengeance gets the better of him and he follows through. Frank and Geddes stage the scene to make it appear like a suicide but the choices they make in their murder method and staging prove less than convincing.
Written by Chris Mundy and directed by Ernest Dickerson, the "Low Winter Sun" pilot shows promise but the series really kicks into gear in its second episode. The show proves in this second hour that it doesn't intend to stretch out story, barreling forward with revelations about a Geddes deception and an internal affairs investigation that begin in tonight's premiere.
That IA investigator, Simon Boyd, is played with just the right amount of smug superiority by actor David Costabile, best known for playing Gale Boetticher on AMC's "Breaking Bad." Boyd is clearly smart and that's definitely bad news for Frank and Geddes. Can they get away with murder with Boyd on the case?
Additional cops in the precinct include Lt. Charles Dawson (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) and detective Dani Khalil (Athena Karkanis), who's smart and recognizes Frank's jumpiness as out-of-character. She's also of Middle Eastern descent, welcome recognition of the diversity of Detroit and the large number of people of Middle East origin who have settled in Michigan.
At least in its first two episodes, "Low Winter Sun" is less effective when it shifts from crooked cops to lowlife criminals. The criminals' introduction is haphazard and messy. It's not clear at first where they stand in the Detroit criminal pecking order or what their scheme is. Goateed leader Damon Callis (James Ransone, "Generation Kill") and his hard-nosed bartender wife Maya (Sprague Grayden, "Sons of Anarchy") clearly have an agenda that seems likely to include damaged veteran/barfly Nick Paflas (Billy Lush, "The Chicago Code") in the near future.
Among the blue collar thugs, Nick stands out for being the most troubled but also the most sympathetic.
As the title suggests, "Low Winter Sun" is a dark, moody journey into the ugly underbelly of criminals and cops who behave like criminals. If that's not appealing, by all means move on. But for fans of complicated, gritty drama, it's worth keeping an eye on.
"Low Winter Sun" feels fresher than Showtime's "Ray Donovan" even if it's less sprawling and less ambitious than "The Wire."
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.