Having achieved success with medical dramas on Thursdays and situation comedies on Wednesdays, along with some popular reality shows, ABC has set its sights on another TV staple in the past couple of years: crime dramas. It has a winner in Castle (Mondays, 10 p.m. EDT) and experienced a couple of audience failures with two very good shows, The Unusuals and The Forgotten.
All three of those shows were a little off the beaten path, a bit quirky, not the ordinary run of police procedural. Given the decidedly mixed results of that strategy (one that fits with ABC’s basic programming approach, which has mined the mildly quirky vein since the late 1950s), it’s no surprise that with Detroit 1-8-7 the Alphabet is trying a show much more in line with current-day police procedural formulas. And wonder of wonders, audiences like it, so far.
Viewers gave it a B+ in the USA Today audience poll, second-best among the twenty-one series rated, and it finished second in its time-slot last week, behind CBS’s The Good Wife, with 7.4 million viewers (Good Wife having grabbed 11.8 million). Reviewers were less enthusiastic, giving it a 64 out of a 100 on Metacritic.
The show is definitely formulaic. It takes place in the mangled urban landscape of current-day Detroit and follows the workings of a homicide squad. (187 is the traditional police radio code for homicide.) The nominal protagonist is Det. Louis Fitch (Michael Imperioli), but each member of the team is given a goodly amount of screen time.
Each episode follows two main criminal investigations, named in the episode’s title. In the untitled pilot (although it could be called “Pharmacy Double; Bullet Train,” as those are the two investigations, so named in on-screen titles), one team of detectives investigates a double murder at a convenience store, and the other looks into the shooting of a divorce lawyer whose body was found on a freight train.
Imperioli’s Fitch is the hard-nosed, easily angered ethnic type, a contemporary Serpico clone. He initially refuses to talk to his partner except on the telephone, even when they’re together in the same room, but “he gets results,” as one of his fellow detectives says. The other detectives and officers are likewise formulaic and mildly quirky: a new detective worried about his wife’s pregnancy; a competent and stable middle-aged detective who has bought a house in Tuscany and dreams of escape; a vaguely world-weary woman in her thirties; a young male officer ridiculed for having been a calendar model; a man of Indian extraction who’s emphatically American in his tastes; and so on.
The stories are not particularly clever, nor apparently intended to be. It’s all supposed to strike us as very real, it seems. (Your mileage may vary.) Thus there’s the usual witness questioning, car chases, suspect interrogations, examination of murder victims’ corpses, weepy next-of-kin death notifications, mass shootouts, hostage crisis, and the like. In addition (spoiler alert) the pilot episode includes the now-cliched would-be shock ending in which one of the central characters is shot and presumably killed.
All of this is pretty much as by-the-numbers as it sounds, but the horribly deteriorated condition of Detroit and the unglamorous but quietly heroic character of the police officers give the show an appearance of gritty urban realism. The visual style is a straight steal from The Wire, however, so viewers of that classic crime drama might not find that aspect of Detroit 1-8-7 to be particularly original either.
There is some attempt to create some audience sympathy for the victims’ friends and relatives and some mixed feelings toward the suspects, which is a sensible approach. Unfortunately, this typically takes the form of having the victims’ relatives and friends indicate their emotions directly, using dialogue and acting techniques to convey sadness, concern, suspicion of the the police officers’ motives, etc., instead of establishing the emotions through dramatic actions. That’s a poor second-best choice.
Last week’s episode, “Royal Bubbles; Needle Drop,” continued the everyday urban nightmare story lines, dealing with the torture and murder of a money-laundering car wash owner and the killing of a young, aspiring hip-hop star. In each case, however, we don’t see the murder committed, nor do we see much gore (although there is some of that). The show avoids sensationalism in that regard.
This story, too, however, plays out in largely formulaic fashion, though there is some interesting exploration of the theme of family loyalty. In addition, there are some nice moments at the end of the episode, when each pair of detectives is bonded closer together by a small act of friendship.
Those are the kinds of things the showmakers really enjoy the most, one suspects, and Detroit 1-8-7 would benefit from more such attention to real-life concerns of that sort, ones with which audience can identify and sympathize. The rest of the time it’s neither original enough nor sufficiently involving to stand out from the crowd.