‘Detroit 1-8-7’ Producer David Zabel on the Show’s Controversy

Before acting as executive producer on Detroit 1-8-7, David Zabel spent eight years as a writer and five years as showrunner for the medical drama ER. Having grown up in Manhattan, Zabel had little previous experience with Detroit. Hour Detroit asked the onetime aspiring poet about his impressions of the city and the controversy surrounding his new show.

What kind of experience do you have with Detroit prior to production?

I don’t have much. I’ve spent the last three months really educating myself. I’ve been here six or eight times.
What are some of your initial impressions?
I didn’t expect the grandeur and the beauty of the city that I saw when I got here. The downtown and some of the architecture in the city is really amazing. The riverfront is one of the most beautiful areas I’ve been to. We shot one of the first episodes — a lot of it is on the riverfront and on a riverboat — because I said, “This is beautiful. This is Detroit. It’s cinematic, and people don’t know it.”
What sets this cop show apart from all the others we’ve seen in the past?
The most important thing, honestly, is that we are trying to tell the story of Detroit. That makes it distinct. That hasn’t been told. You’ve seen L.A. cop shows a million times, you’ve seen New York cop shows a million times, but this incorporates where Detroit is right now and a lot of the specifics of Detroit’s recent history, current state, and, hopefully, a better future.
How realistic is the show’s portrayal of the Detroit Police Department?
It’s pretty real. We have a lot of consultants from the Detroit Police Department, either retired or current. We’ve done a lot of research. Every script is read by people who are with the police department — former detectives, current detectives. We take some artistic license — like any show would — but we’ve tried really hard to be pretty diligent about being accurate.
How will you react and what will it mean for the city if the show doesn’t get picked up beyond a first season?
If it doesn’t get picked up beyond that, then we still will have come here and shot 12 really good episodes of television. Because the one thing I’m convinced of is that the show is good. I think people will recognize that. They’ll also see how incredible Detroit is in terms of having a lot more range and scope than people understand from the stories that they see on the news, because they’re very limited.
Some members of the Detroit City Council took issue with the show. What’s the experience been like working with the city?
It was not the entire city council. What happened was, we were trying to meet everybody who wanted to meet us. There were some — I guess — that felt left out.
The headline read something like, ‘Producers of Detroit 1-8-7 Stand Up City Council.’
Right. That was a little bit of a sneak attack on that one, because we didn’t know about that. We were not informed of that until the day before. It’s an understandable sensitivity that people feel about protecting the identity of the city, which we totally relate to and understand, and want to be respectful towards while also telling a good story.
How do you respond to critics who say you’re perpetuating the negative image of the city?
The fact is that any crime show on television is going to portray crime, so we do portray crime. But it’s always in the context of the heroic work that cops do, that attorneys do, that whoever is fighting crime does. That’s really what this show is about: the heroic people in Detroit who are trying to withstand that crisis of crime. It’s not like we’re saying that there’s a specific crisis of crime in Detroit that’s much worse than anywhere else. This show just happens to be set here. If we were in New York, we’d also be portraying crime.
Do you think those fears will ease over time?
I think they really will when people see the show. If they really watch the show, they will understand that we’re telling a good story about this city. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows. But at the end of the day, it reflects positively on the city and the people who live here, and what the city was, is, and still could be.

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