‘Detroit 1-8-7’: Series Premiere

[24 September 2010]

By Chris Conaton

Coney Dogs

Back before David Simon became a legend for The Wire, he was a legend for Homicide: Life on the Street. Based on Simon’s own non-fiction book following Baltimore homicide detectives, it was filmed in and around Baltimore and viewed the city with a mixture of affection and gritty realism. The show was different from other police procedurals because it was as much about the characters as the cases. That said, the focus for those characters was the job, and their personal lives were largely unseen, except when they affected work.

I bring this up because Detroit 1-8-7 seems to be using Homicide as its blueprint. Although much of the premiere episode was filmed in Atlanta, the production has since moved entirely to Detroit. The city, like Baltimore, has probably long since seen its best days. The crime level in Detroit has been a problem for years, and with the auto industry’s continued decline, the whole metropolitan area is in bad shape. The series premiere, which aired 22 September, acknowledged all of this, if only in passing. But it was more interested in introducing its detectives while giving them a pair of homicides to solve.

The cases were typical of a police procedural. One featured two dead bodies in a drug store, complete with missing cases of oxycontin. Detective Fitch (Michael Imperioli), a 10-year veteran, was on the case with his first-day trainee Damon Washington (on Michael Hill). In usual rookie fashion, Washington spent most of the episode screwing up and aggravating Fitch. He vomited at the crime scene and botched an interrogation, and his cell phone kept going off at inopportune times. But with the help of Detective Ariana Sanchez (Natalie Martinez) and undercover narcotics officer John Stone (D.J. Cotrona), they made steady progress in the case.

The other investigation involved a well-dressed man who somehow ended up dead on a freight train in a shipping yard. Detective Mahajan (Shaun Majumder) and Sergeant Longford (the great James McDaniel, a veteran of NYPD Blue) quickly determined that he was shot and fell off of a nearby bridge and onto the train. That the two cases eventually connected wasn’t much of a surprise, though one hopes it won’t happen in every single episode.

Detroit 1-8-7 is more earnest than, say, the breezy Castle. But its focus on the job as a frame for complicated relationships provides for occasional humor. In this first episode, Longford found fake vomit at his desk the day after his incident at the crime scene. Later, his phone rang while he was collaring a suspect, and as he turned away to pick up, the suspect was heard saying incredulously, “You’re about to answer your phone?”

The absurdity of cops’ lives per se informed their introductions here. Imperioli did solid work as the off-kilter Fitch, his status as the division’s all-star made clear when he got a suspect to confess by sitting silently in the interrogation room for hours. When medical examiner Abbey Ward (Erin Cummings) showed up with a horribly bruised face, our first guess—that she has an abusive husband—gave way to a surprise, that she plays roller derby on the weekends. Longford is a 30-year veteran looking to retire and waiting to learn if the bid he’s made on an Italian villa has gone through. An aging black man who speaks Italian is just one of several apparent references to Homicide, the most blatant of which is the old-school white board with closed cases written in black and open ones in red.

Detroit 1-8-7 has a long way to go before it comes close to equaling Homicide, but it’s off to a promising start. As one of thousands of former Michigan residents forced to leave Michigan to find work, I can assure you that Detroit residents are hoping the show will do the city the same sort of justice Simon’s show did for Baltimore. A scene featuring two detectives in an argument about the proper toppings for a Coney dog rang particularly true, suggesting that that Detroit 1-8-7 means to get the details right.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/131373-detroit-1-8-7/