Review: Checking in on ABC's 'Detroit 1-8-7'
There was a scene in the first episode of ABC’s “Detroit 1-8-7” that gave me expectations the show has struggled to live up to ever since. In the scene, a pair of Detroit homicide detectives are looking for a shell casing on an overpass and are frustrated to instead find bullet after bullet from unrelated crimes.
“This is what happens when you look for bullets in Detroit,” shrugs one of the cops, and the two men keep looking.
It’s a wonderful moment: darkly comic, as much about the culture of this city, the nature of these cops’ work and their own seen-it-all temperament as it was about serving the needs of that particular plot. In that scene, and a handful of others in the pilot involving star Michael Imperioli as an eccentric and inscrutable veteran detective, “Detroit 1-8-7” reminded me very much of one of my all-time favorite series, NBC’s ‘90s cop drama “Homicide: Life on the Street,” which at its best was as much about being a cop as it was about the cases being worked.
But within a few episodes, it became clear that “1-8-7” was going to dwell more and more on the specifics of each investigation, and my enthusiasm waned. Despite the presence of Imperioli and James McDaniel, and the unique setting (the series films on location in the Motor City), there just wasn’t enough to distinguish the show from the 500 other primetime crime procedurals that I also don’t watch. It seemed a solid example of what it was trying to do; what it was trying to do just didn’t interest me much. So I deleted my DVR season pass and figured I’d check back in later.
I got that opportunity via a screener of the episode that airs tonight at 10. And though I’ve obviously missed a bunch of episodes in between, I find “1-8-7” again emulating “Homicide” - just in a different way.
“Homicide” began as an ensemble - one that featured a former Oscar nominee (Ned Beatty), a likely future Oscar winner (Melissa Leo) and a character (Richard Belzer’s John Munch) who’s still around 18 years later - but that show’s producers recognized that the work Andre Braugher was doing as silver-tongued interrogator Frank Pembleton was special, and began orienting the series more and more around him. There were times where it seemed close to hagiography, and others where the show suffered for it (Braugher got bored with Pembleton’s super-competence, so the writers briefly waylaid him with a stroke in a frustrating story arc), but it was his show until he left.
And by tonight’s episode, Imperioli’s Detective Fitch has clearly moved from first among equal status in the ensemble to unequivocal star. It’s the kind of episode where every scene that doesn’t feature Fitch features characters talking about Fitch, and where another detective sings his praises by saying, “There’s two types of cops in this world: there’s Fitch, and there’s the rest of us. You take him off the street and you just make my job a whole lot harder.”
Fitch is in danger of coming off the street because a shady developer he’s been investigating since early in the series has wound up dead, and because everyone he works with thinks Fitch is just crazy enough to have killed him. So an FBI agent (guest star Megan Dodds) comes in to investigate him, with just enough juice to put Fitch and his colleagues through a series of interrogations, but not enough to keep him from working a murder case. So we get scene after scene of the other characters offering their own take on Fitch, and each of them - including partner Damon Washington (Jon Michael Hill) - admitting they understand nothing about him beyond his abilities as a detective.
You need to have a really lead performance to pull this kind of spotlight off, and fortunately “Detroit 1-8-7” has that from Imperioli. A character this brusque and mysterious would be easy to overplay, but Imperioli wisely goes the other way, making Fitch compelling largely because of how little Imperioli lets you see of him.
The casework itself remains middling at best, but at least in this episode that story plays out in the shadow of the FBI investigation into Fitch. And the episode’s closing scenes suggest another big Fitch-related arc that could add a similar level of tension to the day-to-day cases going forward. (Or, to bring up one last “Homicide” comparison, it could take the show to a silly place like those later seasons where the cops were chasing after evil drug lords with helicopters.)
Still like the show, don’t love it. And the ratings don’t have me encouraged, nor does ABC’s plan to shorten the show’s season and give its timeslot to Dana Delany’s “Body of Proof” in March. But this episode reminded me enough of why I liked Imperioli and certain other elements of the series to give it a few more shots before the finale.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org