‘Low Winter Sun’ Review: The Buddy Cop Genre Gets a Queasy New Spin

By  · Published on August 19th, 2013

Low Winter Sun is a familiar show. Its grim, weary atmospherics aside, the cop drama has little to add to the current television landscape. The Shield did police corruption with more coked-up verve, The Wire with more smarts and empathy, and almost any network procedural offers more satisfying whodunnits. Low Winter Sun’s one point of pride, then, is the queasy, jittery partnership of convenience between Frank (Mark Strong) and Joe (Lennie James). “We’re married, Frank. For better or for worse. We’re all each other’s got,” says Joe, whose fate is bound to Frank’s after the two killed Joe’s former partner Brendan McCann in the series’ pilot. They are dissimilar in the ways we expect of buddy cops – Frank is introspective but stoic, Joe is more cutthroat, a dissembling man who likes to hear himself talk. (Also, has the show yet revealed who Frank’s official partner is?)

Low Winter Sun’s boldness and originality comes from its willingness to challenge our preconceived notions of mismatched partners. Far from “brothers in blue,” they’re simply shackled together by one unfortunate if inevitable decision and haven’t yet figured out how to coexist without periodically choking the other with their shared chain.

Frank spends most of the series’ second episode, “The Goat Rodeo,” trying to get Joe out of his way. “Go home. You look like shit,” he urges at Brendan’s crime scene. “He was my partner,” Joe protests. (This scene was so chockfull of cop cliches I initially thought they were sarcastically putting on a pantomime for Internal Affairs investigator Boyd’s sake.) Later at the station, Frank attempts to send Joe off with Dani (Athena Karkanis) to her crackhouse corpse. It isn’t until a reversal in the investigation into Brendan’s death – an autopsy shows that the corrupt cop drowned in tap water, not the river – puts the IA spotlight on Joe that Frank realizes that they’re handcuffed together, now and forever.

Frank gets closer to Joe in the way men on prestige cable drama almost always do – through violence. To establish a tighter partnership, he literally squeezes out of his murder accomplice the big secret Joe had kept from him: Katia, his accented lady friend from the beach-cabana flashbacks, is alive. (Also, sorry, dude, your girlfriend was a hooker.) That means Frank had no reason to kill Brendan, since his motivation had been Brendan’s murder of Katia. How these two will work together to save their skins, when Frank loathes Joe for deceiving him into murdering a fellow cop, should be fascinating to watch.

But if Frank and Joe are enthralling together, they’re pretty dull apart. Until he attacks Joe, Frank has been the Hamlet of the past two episodes, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Brooding, inert, and saddled with a tragic romance that isn’t romantic in the least (because the show hasn’t yet established why he cared about Katia), Joe is an Easter Island statue in a suit. He looks interesting as hell, but he doesn’t do a thing. As a man with at least two lives, Frank is more dynamic. He lives with and talks religion with his mom, who seems unaware that her police officer son hides and snorts coke around the house. But neither Frank or Joe’s backgrounds are remotely as interesting as Brendan’s warren of fluffy bunnies.

Of even interest is the criminal side of things, where the show is unfurling its characterizations and plot developments much too slowly. Itchy and restless under Greek mobster Skelos’ thumb, Damon (James Ransone) and Maya (Sprague Grayden) are biting at the chomp for a piece of the American Dream, which in their case means an illegal casino and hookers. They get an auspicious start when their negotiations for territory and protection with another drug lord, the awesomely-named Reverend Lowdown, goes better than expected.

However, the fact that they can’t wait six months to start selling, as well as their sampling of their product, bodes ill for the future. The characters can’t wait for some action to happen to them. Me neither.