Detroit 1-8-7 debuts tonight on ABC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Detroit 1-8-7 is notable less for what it actually is in the pilot and more for the promise it shows. The pilot is less interesting as an episode of television and more interesting as an example of what the show is trying to get back to. If it can overcome some of the sloppier storytelling of the pilot and second episode and if it can continue its focus on characters over cases, this could be this season's The Good Wife, an enjoyable throwback to an '80s and '90s drama type that entertains through simple, solid execution. But where The Good Wife was trying to simply turn into a new L.A. Law or The Practice, Detroit 1-8-7 has its eyes set on much, much bigger game. It wants to be Homicide: Life on the Streets for a new decade, and shows like Homicide: Life on the Streets don't just fall off the truck.
In case the title and references to Homicide weren't a giveaway, Detroit 1-8-7 is yet another cop drama. Yet unlike many of the cop procedurals of the past ten years, this is more of a police station workplace drama. It focuses more on the police officers as characters, getting into their personal lives (or lack thereof) and being less concerned about just who committed the crimes and more concerned about the soul-deadening process of solving them. In the pilot, the cops try to figure out who the killer behind a double homicide in a pharmacy was, while another duo attempts to solve the case of how a man in an expensive suit came to be a corpse in an abandoned train car. Basically, the only thing separating this from its most obvious spiritual forebears - Homicide: Life on the Street, NYPD Blue, and Hill Street Blues - is the fact that it's set in crumbling Detroit.
The big controversy surrounding Detroit 1-8-7 has been the fact that, well, it's set in Detroit. Some who live in the city have raised the issue that the pilot is vaguely exploitative, simply because the reason it's set in Detroit seems to be the popular (and true) perception that there are a lot of murders in Detroit. In addition, the wreckage of the city's grand past provides the best mid-apocalyptic backdrop for a cop show in ages. There may be something to these complaints. The Detroit setting is not particularly important to the show, beyond the fact that Michigan tax credits made it easier for the show to film several scenes in the pilot there. (It is less clear where the second episode was filmed. Updated: I've learned that only a slight amount of the pilot was filmed in Detroit, but most of the second episode was. So there you go.) It's mostly set in Detroit so that the show can take advantage of just how hard-up the city is. There isn't even a passing and completely gratuitous reference to Bill Laimbeer or something.
But, honestly, the best thing about Detroit 1-8-7 is the look of it, and a big part of that comes from the city's landscapes and how effectively they're used. Even the montages of footage of the city that open each episode are more instantly arresting than similar montages of footage of, say, New York, because the camera's not just showing famous landmarks but also signs of urban decay spun out of control. When the characters are out and about in Detroit, the show looks absolutely fantastic, like nothing else on television. A lot of that might have to do with how the series is filmed. Using high-def video cameras, the show aims for a documentary-esque look (while avoiding becoming a documentary completely) that lands somewhere between the Battlestar Galactica remake, The Shield, and Homicide. There's not as much shaky cam here, but the HD video gives the show a gorgeous look, unlike anything since Michael Mann's Robbery Homicide Division was summarily canceled several years ago. If there's a series on the air that has a roughly similar look, it's Southland, though Detroit 1-8-7 looks much, much better.
From all of the above, viewers will be forgiven for thinking that this show sounds awesome. The cop shows listed are big names in TV history and great shows to aspire to be. The fact that the show is more interested in characters than cases will similarly go down well with a certain brand of viewers. And the visuals in the pilot will be enough to suck at least a few curious viewers in straight off. But if the show is better than, say, Southland, it's nowhere near the level of the shows it wants to be or even something like CBS' fun, disposable cop drama, Hawaii Five-0. However, so many of the problems in the pilot, especially, stem from the weird production process of the series that it's entirely possible the show will just keep getting better and better as it goes along.
Briefly, the series has been through roughly three incarnations now. There was an original script that highlighted the episode's comedic elements, similar to ABC's late The Unusuals, starring Jeremy Renner and Amber Tamblyn. From there, there was an original pilot that was a mockumentary, with occasional to-the-camera confessionals and blatant acknowledgment of the camera within the show's universe (one of these shots has made the final cut of the pilot, and it's deeply jarring). ABC has so many new shows that rely on the mockumentary format this year - plus the already existing Modern Family - that it decided to jettison the concept, particularly when the actual city of Detroit decided to ban film crews from riding along with their cops after a reality TV show crew was present to see an incident involving a police grenade accidentally killing a child. (An earlier version of this post indicated the cameras captured a murder being committed.) And now there's the final pilot, which keeps much of the mockumentary version but cuts out the stuff where the characters acknowledge the camera's existence. It's strained and awkward and hard to watch in places, particularly when the show tries to use a shot where the character is obviously looking at the camera but wants the audience to believe he or she is not, not really.
Fortunately, the second episode, which was completely filmed sans fake documentary elements, is slightly better, suggesting the producers feel even more comfortable with documentary-style shooting in service of a fictional story than trying to fake a documentary. (And if we're being honest, the proceedings of the pilot - which roughly and accidentally follow the plot of the game Police Quest 2: The Vengeance - are not good fodder for something that's supposed to be really happening.) The storytelling is still a little forced, and the musical cues are too omnipresent, but the show is already smoothing out the kinks, figuring out what does and doesn't work. Again, if this show can settle in to a nice workplace groove, it will undoubtedly become a nice, satisfying little show.
The pilot, while flawed, is helped by that hypnotic shooting style and by the cast. All of them are playing broad types that any fan of cop dramas will recognize, but there are some good actors in these parts. James McDaniel as the old guy who's ready to be done with this whole police thing? Yes, please, particularly when he starts talking in Italian. Marsha Mason as the boss who won't take no guff? Sure, even though she tends to be given the most atrocious dialogue. Nataline Martinez as the token hot cop? Surprisingly good! (Without drawing a lot of attention to the fact, Detroit 1-8-7 has assembled a nicely diverse cast.) But the show belongs to Michael Imperioli, whose performance sneaks up on viewers. Particularly in the pilot, he doesn't seem to be up to too much, other than a standard jaded world-weariness. But as the show goes along, it becomes more and more of a quiet study of a man who's reacted to the horrors he's seen by shutting one part of himself off and letting the other part get a little weird and off the map. If Detroit 1-8-7 can follow Imperioli into that uncharted territory, it'll be the best new cop show in years.