Low Winter Sun begins with a monologue from Detective Joe Gebbes (Lennie James), in which he likens morality to a strobe switching between dark and light. But light doesn’t seem to exist anywhere in the section of Detroit where the series takes place, as every action is motivated by greed and self-preservation. Joe and his colleague, Frank Agnew (Mark Strong), at first suggest a couple of sophisticated badasses, having carefully planned out the murder of a fellow lawman, Brendan McCann (Michael McGrady), and examined the kill from a variety of angles in hopes of clearing themselves of any wrongdoing. But not long after the pair drowns McCann in a sink and sends him plummeting into the Detroit River handcuffed to his car’s steering wheel, Internal Affairs arrives on the scene, prompting the two unpolished gumshoes to hilariously sneak away to a bathroom like teenage boys about to get scolded for skipping class, arguing about how they might have botched the job, with Frank accusing Joe of setting him up.
It’s then that Low Winter Sun becomes less about two smooth operators playing mind games with everyone around them, and more about Frank and Joe squirming, clashing with each other, and sweating under the intensifying pressure brought on by their recklessness. It turns out Internal Affairs wasn’t initially called in to investigate McCann’s death, but rather, to follow leads into his involvement with all sorts of under-the-table drug deals, prostitution trap houses, and the Greektown mob. Joe, McCann’s former partner, was also entangled in a number of shady affairs, and was the one who talked Frank into killing McCann, convincing him that the man butchered his prostitute lover.
Strong, who also starred in the original U.K. version of the series, gives Frank an edgy quality, like the character could blow at any second, adding some much-needed tension to draggy investigatory sequences borrowed from typical humdrum network police procedurals. Conversely, James’s portrayal of Joe verges on theatrical, the roaring thunder to Frank’s quiet storm, and Low Winter Sun spends too much time allowing them to spar wildly instead of fleshing them out as believable antiheroes. Frank and Joe’s altercations, whether verbal, physical, or a combination of the two, seemingly lack any real justification, like the show’s writers are making them quarrel simply to bridge gaps in the script.
Low Winter Sun’s Detroit is a character in and of itself, photographed as a seedy, dusky metropolis overrun by gloom and arrant crime. There are glimmers of decency poking through the dense murk in a few of DPD’s finest, though, like Detective Dani Kahlil (Athena Karkanis), who gives the impression that she sees through Frank and Joe’s shaky alibis, and Lieutenant Charles Dawson (Ruben Stantiago-Hudson), a 25-year veteran who’s grown weary of his department’s inability to stop the relentless crimewaves, but can’t bring himself to relinquish the dream that things might one day improve. It’s in these characters that Joe’s “strobe” speech makes sense; they’re the few good souls standing in stark contrast to the nasty attitudes running amok on the city’s decaying streets. But Low Winter Sun too often lingers on Detroit’s colorless evil more than its spirited righteousness, resulting in an overwhelmingly bleak narrative that feels as cold and lifeless as a corpse.