Saturday, August 17, 2013

'Low Winter Sun,' EPISODE TWO: The Bodies Electric

Any new series, but especially an ensemble drama, has so much real estate to sell in its pilot episode. The first show has to introduce all the characters, explain their relationship to each other and to the plot, establish the overarching premise, tone and atmosphere of the show – oh, and if it could be a riveting tale that leaves room for the storyline to grow and enthralls viewers so they can't wait to tune in next week, that would be good, too.

Last week's premiere of Low Winter Sun didn't accomplish all those objectives as efficiently as it might have. But given those ambitions, there were two ways to look at the series opener: through Detroit eyes ("Gee, great to have a TV show shot in my town" "Happy to have new jobs created here" "Lord, hope they don't make our city look too bad") and everybody else's ("Geez, what a grim and post-apocalyptic city Detroit is" "Look at all those burned-out buildings" "THIS is the show that's going to replace Breaking Bad?"). 
If only he were better looking. (Credit Frank Ockenfels3/AMC)

That is, if you looked at it at all. Of the record-setting, almost six million people who clicked to AMC to see the first of Breaking Bad's historic final eight episodes, the bad news is that nearly four million of them clicked away without giving Low Winter Sun, which followed it, as much as a blink – even resisting the network's shrewd ploy to withhold scenes from Breaking Bad's second episode until the first commercial break in LWS. (Longtime AMC viewers know the previews of their upcoming shows generally are disconnected scenes that tell them nothing about the episode itself, so they knew they wouldn't be missing much.)

Let it be remembered, however, that the 2008 debut of Breaking Bad, when Walt was still a wimpy, cancer-ridden chem teacher years before he became a vicious drug overlord, wasn't immediately hailed as a classic-in-waiting either. As is the case with practically every TV series, the key for LWS will be how much patience AMC shows to let it find and grow its audience within its 10-episode commitment, and how disappointed the network will be if it feels Sun is squandering viewers in weeks to come from its blockbuster lead-in.

As to Episode Two, "The Goat Rodeo," airing Sunday (Aug. 18), for the second week in a row the hour opens with a long, lingering closeup of Det. Frank Agnew's face. If executive producer Chris Mundy (who also wrote the episode) intends to keep using this device, let's hope he and director Ernest Dickerson at least vary the faces from time to time. Athena Karkanis (Det. Dani Khalil) would be a lovely change of pace. I mean, Mark Strong (Agnew) has an interesting, rugged mug, but no one is likely to mistake him for Bradley Cooper. He could be scaring off prospective viewers by himself.

However, as ace Detroit homicide detective Agnew, he has bigger problems to face. He and fellow detective Joe Geddes (Lennie James) have succeeded in killing Geddes' boozy, bloated partner, Brendan McCann, and making appear to be a suicide, only to discover a nasty, unanticipated detail once McCann's Cadillac is fished out of the Detroit River: an even more bloated body hidden in the trunk, devoid of a few minor details like his head, hands and feet. (But not the dismembered body of Frank's beloved Katia, the possibility suggested by Geddes that put murder in Frank's mind in the first place.)

As you might expect, this new development ratchets the tension between the two co-conspirators even higher. The scrutiny surrounding the death of a Detroit cop is going to be intense enough, but the appearance of an extra corpse is certain to make this whole affair a cluster. And of course, snooty Internal Affairs Det. Simon Boyd (David Costabile), described early in the episode as a "self-righteous, gel-wearing b---h," is determined to spread his scent over every inch of the case. In fact, Boyd and Agnew, who ironically was put in charge of the investigation by his boss, Lt. Dawson (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), get into a pissing match over an issue as simple as whether Boyd may enter McCann's house/crime scene. Boyd makes a cryptic reference to his love of duck hunting as a way of telling Frank he has the patience to wait until he gets what he wants.

Geddes: Bad as He Wants to Be (Ockenfels 3)
Inside McCann's palatial (for a DPD officer) home, the squad finds all the normal accoutrements for a crooked cop: cocaine, booze, wads of cash. (Although anybody who keeps rabbits for pets in a spare bedroom can't be all bad, can he?) But it's a surprising text message Frank finds on one of McCann's throwaway cells that sends his head reeling about Geddes and the murderous act they share.

Elsewhere, crime-boss-in-training Damon (James Ronsone), having just busted into a stash house, shot the lookout dead (I know, I know, but at least in Low Winter Sun a black man was the second person to die) and stolen $200,000 in cocaine from Greektown mob kingpin Alexander Skelos, is rallying his ragtag band punks to expect retaliation and nervously pondering what his next move should be.

Meanwhile, Frank sends Geddes home – ostensibly to get him away from the case for a while, but more likely just to get Geddes out of his sight – and we learn a few disturbing things about ol' Joe. He lives with his mama. He's not above doing a few hits of the white happy dust himself. And, he and Damon appear to know each other quite well.

Boyd's patience does pay off, and he gets to stand in alongside Agnew as the autopsy is performed on McCann. In the process, the medical examiner arrives at some conclusions that test Frank's ability not to squirm in public. The "perfect" crime seems to grow less and less perfect by the minute.

Late in the series pilot, Frank is overwhelmed by the sudden knowledge that Geddes had played him to be the prime mover in McCann's murder. Now, as the full depths of Geddes' corruption are peeling away like the layers of an onion, like Fred MacMurray's classic analogy in Double Indemnity Frank knows he and Joe are stuck together on this death car till the end of the line.

I would be remiss not to mention one beautiful bit of cinematography in this episode. In a flashback scene, as Frank recalls an intimate moment with his beloved Katia, the low winter sun (get it?) glows between their kiss as their lips part. Nice touch, Ernest.

Among the Detroit references in this episode: coneys, Van Dyke Avenue, the Rouge River, the Dream Cruise (although linked to a sexual favor I'm fairly certain isn't a standard part of the weekend experience), the Free Press and, sadly, stripping copper from abandoned houses. Keep that authenticity coming, folks.

Grade: B

(Just in case you didn't get the Double Indemnity analogy.)

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