News Column

Dark Nights

August 10, 2013


"Low Winter Sun," AMC's latest dramatic entry, is unquestionably well done. It's nicely written, impressively acted and beautifully filmed.

It's also depressing as hell.

This drama's pilot, which opens with a murder by drowning, left me feeling empty, bleak -- and puzzled about the current state of television drama.

Why does everything have to be so dark these days? Why must dramas, especially on cable, tell such disturbing bedtime stories? Why have characters with few to no redeeming qualities become synonymous with top-tier TV?

It's gotten to be like a big limbo contest, in which each serious new contender tries to move the bar a little lower and wriggle under it with uglier crimes, less humanity, more horrific outcomes.

In recent years, all the buzz -- and increasingly, the awards -- have gone to dark and disturbing cable dramas. They include:

* Showtime's "Dexter," about a police department blood-spatter analyst who is secretly a serial killer.

* "Bates Motel," A&E's destined-to-end-badly "Psycho" prequel about the young Norman Bates and his mom.

* AMC's "Breaking Bad," about a dying chemist-turned-teacher- turned-meth-dealer and murderer.

* AMC's "The Killing," about two Seattle detectives who this season tracked a serial killer of teenage prostitutes but didn't save many lives.

* Showtime's "Homeland," about a bipolar CIA analyst who's tracking terrorists.

* FX's new "The Bridge," which began with a body turning up on the bridge that connects El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. Upon closer inspection, the two halves of the body did not match. The top belonged to a Texas judge, the bottom to a Mexican prostitute -- the work of a particularly sadistic serial killer.

It has become fashionable to dismiss the dramas on the broadcast networks as too simplistic, neat and positive -- something that this year's Primetime Emmy nominations drove home. Not a single drama on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox or the CW made the list of outstanding drama nominees.

Crime solvers

In truth, CBS' "Criminal Minds" can be as dark and troubling as anything on cable. And NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" routinely deals with horrific sex crimes.

What's more, the broadcast networks have long served up the gruesome and gory in procedural shows like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." But, unlike on many cable dramas, the good guys almost always resolved these crimes before the closing credits -- until recently.

This past season, Fox unveiled "The Following" -- in which FBI consultant Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) has been frequently outwitted by serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) and his chilling cult of murderers -- and NBC launched "Hannibal," in which Dr. Hannibal Lecter is assisting the FBI, even as he's secretly munching on human organs.

But in TV's great limbo contest, AMC's latest entry may take the prize.

Set and filmed in Detroit -- a downer in itself -- "Low Winter Sun" is about a vengeance-seeking cop with a conscience. (The tag line for the show: "Good man. Cop. Killer.")

The pilot begins with this supposedly good man, homicide Detective Frank Agnew (British actor Mark Strong, who starred in the 2006 miniseries), working up the courage to help kill a man -- by holding his head under water in a restaurant sink. His partner in this crime is Detective Joe Geddes (Lennie James), a veteran homicide detective with questionable motives.

Drug house slaughter

The pilot episode also features a slaughter at a drug house and flashbacks to the murder of Agnew's girlfriend, who was decapitated.

In the entire one-hour pilot, I did not see a single glimmer of comic relief.

I'm not saying we should return to the simpler (and simplistic) days of "Murder, She Wrote" or "Diagnosis: Murder." And not every mystery series has to be a "crime lite" show like TNT's "Rizzoli & Isles" or "Major Crimes" or a quirky detective saga like CBS' wonderful "Elementary" or ABC's silly but fun "Castle." Nor do I expect to find the kind of humor that frequently offset the edginess of "The Sopranos" or "The Wire." Few television writers, after all, are as gifted as David Chase or David Simon.

But is there not a happier medium?

European roots

Like so many other dark dramas that have hit our shores lately -- including "The Killing" (based on a Danish series) and "The Bridge" (a remake of a Scandinavian show) -- "Low Winter Sun" has European roots. It's adapted from a 2006 two-part British miniseries. Is it an American thing to want to have a happy ending? Or at least an ending that won't cause nightmares?

But grittiness need not exclude humor. In "The Bridge," the lighter moments come from unlikely sources -- a beautiful detective with Asperger's syndrome, Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger), whose misreading of social cues sometimes leads to comically awkward exchanges, and even a ruthless Mexican drug lord, who in last week's episode discussed the meaning of "serial killer" (and whether the term applies to him) with his obsequious henchman.

And on "The Killing" -- which concluded its third season last week with a messy and troubling ending -- the interaction between the main detective characters yields some subtly humorous moments. Detectives Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) are both very damaged people, but they're basically good people, and their connection is genuine and touching -- sometimes even funny.

And so, though it rains a lot in Seattle (played by Vancouver in "The Killing"), that AMC drama is not nearly as dark as the first episode of "Low Winter Sun."

There are nine more episodes beyond that pilot, though. Here's hoping "Sun" will lighten up a bit.

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