Detroit is a beaten-down city. It’s been bleeding jobs and residents for years, and as the opening voice-over in “Detroit 1-8-7” tells us, the city has one of the highest murder rates in America.
Those dire real-life circumstances make for a very rich setting for a crime drama, though, and ABC’s new series (which premieres at 10 p.m. ET Tuesday, Sept. 21) uses the Motor City extremely well. The location shooting and some very strong performances lift it above standard cop-show fare.
The show you’ll see Tuesday night is different than the one the show’s creators originally intended. The first pilot was shot documentary-style, and the cops occasionally talking to the camera worked pretty well. But after the pilot filmed, the city of Detroit banned film crews from following cops on the job, the result of a real-life incident in which a young girl was killed during a raid filmed by a reality-show crew.
Title cards for the most part have taken the place of the talking-head scenes, but the story doesn’t suffer too much (and the show is still shot in a cinema-verite style; it recalls “NYPD Blue” in that way). That’s due mostly to the strength of the cast, and in particular former “Sopranos” star Michael Imperioli as homicide Detective Louis Fitch.
Fitch is maddeningly hard to read for his new partner, Damon Washington (Jon Michael Hill) and the rest of the homicide detectives, but he’s also really, really good at his job. He’s the kind of detective who can get a confession from a suspect simply by sitting in a room and staring at him — and also the kind of person who’d rather talk to someone sitting five feet away by calling his cell phone.
If Fitch were just an assemblage of tics and quirks, though, it wouldn’t work, and Imperioli lets the wall down enough to show that he really cares about both his job and the people he works with. It’s one of the most interesting performances you’re likely to see this fall.
The other primary homicide teams are Sgt. Jesse Longford (“NYPD Blue” alum James McDaniel) and Detective Vikram Mahajan (Shaun Majumder, “24”), veterans who have an easy rapport with each other, and Ariana Sanchez (Natalie Martinez, “Death Race”), who’s solo in the premiere but will team up with a new homicide detective, John Stone (D.J. Cotrona), at the end of the premiere. Martinez is maybe the biggest surprise in the cast — Sanchez is tough and funny and knows her city really well.
“Detroit 1-8-7” is filming on location in Michigan, and that’s an immeasurable help in making the show feel authentic. There’s almost no way to make Los Angeles double for Detroit, and it wouldn’t be easy in New York either. The characters are out on the street a lot, and the location shooting gives the show a look that sets it apart from the rest of the crime-fighters on TV.
Seventeen years after “NYPD Blue” premiered (and five years after it ended), it’s hard to apply the term “groundbreaking” to a network police drama. But after a lot of false starts in the intervening time, ABC may have finally found a worthy heir to “Blue’s” mantle.
Photo credit: ABC