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Saturday, August 9, 2014


After seeing him play good guys in the fairly interesting psychological thriller ANNA and now this, AMC's one-season cop show LOW WINTER SUN: THE COMPLETE SERIES (a 3-disc, ten-episode DVD set from Anchor Bay), I have now officially forgiven Mark Strong for being the totally boo-hiss Frank D'Amico in KICK-ASS. (The fact that I hated him for that in the first place is a testament to his acting skills.) So now, I can accept him in the role of a morally conflicted homicide cop who's the good guy except for one tiny little catch--his cop character is also a cop-killer.

That's right, the term "good guy" can be pretty relative. Here, Strong plays Detroit homicide detective Frank Agnew, a former hero whom you might call a "faded flower" of departmental integrity. We know this isn't going to be your standard police procedural when the series opens with Frank and fellow detective Joe Geddes (Lennie James, "The Walking Dead") murdering Geddes' now-former partner Brendan McCann in cold blood and disposing of the body by staging a fake suicide.

The viewer is thrown for a loop from the first minutes. Here we have the show's two lead cops pretending to investigate their fellow detective's brutal homicide while actually doing their best to sabotage said investigation until the case goes cold. When a witness crops up claiming to have seen a tall, bald white guy and a medium-sized black guy--namely, Frank and Geddes--plunging the dead McCann's car into the river, they respond by contradicting, confusing, and discrediting him until he doesn't know what he saw.

The first episode (entitled, simply enough, "Pilot") establishes the basics--crooked good cops, crooked bad cops, crooked bad guys. In short, crooked everything. Interdepartmental tension grows when Internal Affairs sets the small but tenacious Lt. Simon Boyd (David Costabile) loose in the squad room. McCann, it seems, has been under scrutiny for quite awhile due to his shady dealings with drug traffickers, leading to the murder of some small-time dealers and the disappearance of a prostitute-witness named Katia (Mickey Sumner).

To complicate things even further, Frank was in love with Katia and is now obsessed with finding her. Geddes, on the other hand, doesn't want her found because she knows too much about his own involvement with McCann's extracurricular activities.

The plot is so twisted that lead characters Frank and Geddes alternate between working together to stall the case, and being at each others' throats due to their wildly conflicting motives. Their boss, Lt. Dawson (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), just wants everything to work itself out in any way necessary so he can move up the ladder and get a corner office with a view. Perhaps the biggest threat to Frank and Geddes, strangely enough (aside from Internal Affairs man Boyd), is Detective Dani Khalil (Athena Karkanis), since her honesty and integrity have yet to be hopelessly corrupted.

While all of this is going on, we get to know the criminals with whom McCann was secretly dealing and, at times, even empathize with their ambition to break out from under the thumb of local Greek crime boss Alexander Skelos (Alon Aboutboul) and make it on their own. Husband and wife team Damon and Maya Callis (James Ransone, Sprague Grayden) know they're playing with fire, especially when Damon hatches a dangerous plan to hit Skelos which Maya is strongly against because of the danger it poses to their children.

And yes, our heroes Frank and Geddes themselves have a long personal history with the two which, like just about everything else in this show, leads to plenty of complications down the line.

We're meant to be ambivalent toward almost all of the main characters in LOW WINTER SUN, and for the most part the writers pull this off. This can be rather stimulating to watch as standard good-bad stereotypes are manipulated to make us wonder sometimes who we should be rooting for or against. It also makes for storylines that are wildly unpredictable, especially since most of these characters are a highly volatile bunch prone to violent acting out.

The downside of this series is that all of the good stuff takes a while--several episodes, in fact--to come together enough to demand our attention and make us insatiably eager to see what happens next. At times, the show tries too hard to be "gritty" (in one scene, Frank tells Geddes that they're trying to push a "square turd down a round toilet") and the early going is filled with long, uninteresting dialogue scenes that make us yearn for the next sudden shock or explosive confrontation.

Around the third disc, however, things heat up to the point that I was watching in rapt attention as Frank, AWOL from a pressing court date while being sought by his own police department, goes through a life-shattering meltdown--a magnificent, self-destructive breakdown of epic proportions. (Mark Strong has a field day in these final episodes.) Geddes, meanwhile, continues to be an increasingly complex character who knows he's sold his soul but is trying to salvage what's left of it even as we keep being surprised by what he is capable of.

Stylistically, the series is a bit murky-looking at times but keeps the handheld-camera thing on an acceptably functional level like the old show "Homicide: Life on the Streets" rather than going full-out "NYPD Blue." Much of the show's "gritty" quality comes from its production design--the squad room, in particular, looks like it should either be totally renovated or condemned for demolition.

The 3-disc DVD set from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound and subtitles in English and Spanish. Extras include the featurettes "A Look at 'Low Winter Sun'", "Detroit Grit", and "Designing the Precinct." There are also brief featurettes for each episode and a wealth of deleted scenes.

With its excellent leads and a fine supporting cast, LOW WINTER SUN rewards patient viewers who can make it through the slower early going until the final episodes catch dramatic fire. It's a shame the series wasn't picked up for a second season and given a chance to get even better--it would've been interesting to see where the writers went with it. But these ten episodes are fairly self-contained and supply enough of a resolution to not leave us hanging.

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