AMC's disappointing Low Winter Sun hints at a possible slump for cable TV's golden channel
From the moment AMC’s Low Winter Sun begins, you know you’re watching something serious.
Mark Strong, the talented British actor playing stoic, principled Detroit homicide Det. Frank Agnew, faces the camera looking seriously depressed. He walks into a scene with another talented British actor, Lennie James, who asks in a serious tone, “are you drunk enough?”
It is obvious, after a few moments, that these two characters -- both police detectives -- are talking about killing someone. And they are very serious about it.
But it is that relentless, grim seriousness that ultimately undermines AMC’s next bid for TV drama greatness. This is a homage to film noir which knows it is About Something. And so, it strains so hard to Be Great – to give its many talented cast members the material to show off their acting chops – that it unfolds like a series practically begging the viewer to respect its quality.
And as anyone in Hollywood can tell you, no one gets respect in show business by begging for it. You have to earn it.
At first, I thought Low Winter Sun’s disappointing first two episodes were an expected reality check for a cable channel which has been on an incredible roll. Mad Men redefined television and the pop culture zeitgeist; Breaking Bad rolls into its final season Sunday as the finest example of an antiheroes tale told boldy and creatively; The Walking Dead earns raves from fanboys even as it obliterates the ratings boundaries which once separated cable and broadcast.
But I now fear for AMC’s future, because Low Winter Sun isn’t its only new series rolling snake eyes this year. The Killing, another moody crime drama which stretches a single murder investigation over a full season (or more), has never recovered from deciding not to unveil the killer in its first season until well into its second season, outstripped by fare such as FX’s The Bridge and the BBC’s Broadchurch.
Hell on Wheels, which returns Saturday, has never found its footing as a compelling western. I did a piece for NPR a while back suggesting that it wasn’t a fit allegory for larger themes, in a way the best westerns are. But I also think there’s another culprit.
That gloom and doom. Too many of AMC’s new shows are too damn serious.
Breaking Bad may be the best example of what these other shows lack. From its first frame, Bad knew it was telling a story that was often absurd and sometimes hilarious – from budding meth cook Walter White forced to wear his tighty-whities in one early scene to the machinations of downmarket lawyer Saul “Better call Saul” Goodman.
Breaking Bad never felt like it was trying to live up to something, because it debuted when there were zero expectations for the channel or the series. I remember early stories on the program generating zero response from this newspaper’s readers, because no one was really watching it or gauging its impact.
Now Bad is beginning its last eight episodes and Mad Men is expected to end its final season next year. When theyare gone, which new shows will warm the hearts of critics and fans in a similar way?
The Killing, Hell on Wheels and Low Winter Sun feel like the self-conscious results of a channel which knows it’s on top and has far more options for falling down than otherwise.
The optimistic note for those who hope to like Sun is that early episodes of a series are like chapters in a novel, and it’s always possible to finish strong after a slow start. It’s based on a British miniseries of the same name set in Scotland – Strong also played the cop in that production -- so there’s hope the story can find its footing as it progresses.
But Sun’s drawbacks – besides its relentlessly downbeat tone, the characters don’t feel rooted in Detroit, despite the series shooting on location in Motown – are considerable.
Here’s hoping AMC remembers that even the grimmest stories need some light. And a bunch of characters doing serious business in a serious manner doesn’t always equal excellence.