There’s a scene in the pilot episode of Detroit 1-8-7 that’s shot inside the American Coney Island, where two detectives swap anecdotes about their familial coney-dog traditions during a late-night lunch break. When Detective Mahajan (Shaun Majumder) douses his dog in ketchup, Sgt. Longford (James McDaniel, formerly of NYPD Blue) points out his offense. “You can’t put all that ketchup on that,” he tells his partner. “That’s not a coney. I don’t even know what it is.” Their exchange is a metaphor for the show. In a lot of ways, 1-8-7 is as authentic as one of Detroit’s ubiquitous wieners — smothered in Hollywood ketchup.
The premise of the show is simple. We follow the homicide unit of the Detroit Police Department in a city with “one of the highest murder rates in the country,” as the opening voice-over explains. “Every murder tells a story.” But the murders aren’t what interest viewers. Unlike other procedural cop dramas, 1-8-7 focuses more on the detectives and the relationships that they develop with one another. The cases they work serve as narrative arcs that frame their interactions, and are not memorable on their own. In that way, 1-8-7 has more in common with a series like Scrubs and other workplace dramas than it does Law & Order.
Although 1-8-7 is the first network television series to be shot and produced entirely in Detroit (a warehouse in Highland Park was converted into a soundstage that replicates Detroit Police headquarters), the pilot was filmed in Atlanta. This results in some inconsistencies: Close-ups of the actors appearing on what are clearly Atlanta streets are interspersed with flyovers of the Motor City and tracking shots of Detroit landmarks. This won’t be a problem for national viewers, but locals will notice, if only in the first episode.
Michael Imperioli, an Emmy Award winner for The Sopranos, broods as Detective Louis Fitch, described in the show’s backgrounder as “damaged but driven.” We’ve seen this type of character before (Vincent D’Onofrio in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, for example). He’s tightly wound and slightly “off,” but he gets the job done — no matter how unconventional his methods. There’s some unrequited sexual tension between Fitch and Detective Ariana Sanchez (Natalie Martinez), which isn’t very interesting or believable — yet. The writers seem to be setting Fitch up as a character whose layers will be peeled back slowly. Imperioli is fun to watch, and — save for maybe McDaniel — the most talented actor of the bunch. But his “misunderstood” schtick can be cloying at times.
Other cast members help temper Imperioli’s slow burn, with a blend of offbeat humor and endearing witticisms. It’s hard not to like these characters, particularly rookie detective and new father Damon Washington (Jon Michael Hill), and McDaniel’s veteran cop who dreams of retirement in Tuscany.
Ultimately, the show is engaging and has potential. The characters are well-developed, if not totally Detroit-credible. The pilot is funnier than expected, and the show’s humor succeeds more than its attempted tender scenes, but the second episode lacks the laugh-out-loud moments that make the pilot stick. One hopes that 1-8-7 doesn’t lose its sense of humor as the series continues.
During the show’s red-carpet premiere, 1-8-7 writer Phonz Williams, a Detroit native and University of Michigan graduate, told me that his role was to ensure the show’s authenticity. “In Detroit, we call soft drinks ‘pop,’ not ‘soda,’” he said. “Those things matter.” But the show commits that colloquial sin not just in the pilot, but the second episode, too. Where were you on those, Phonz?
Executive Producer David Zabel says he hopes to offer a different image of Detroit than what is portrayed in the media. But that’s a challenging task to accomplish with a procedural drama. With story arcs that are mostly resolved by the end of each episode, the show will be hard-pressed to delve into the issues the way HBO’s The Wire did with Baltimore. To be fair, 1-8-7 does not aim for the Dickensian grandeur of David Simon’s skewering of bureaucratic institutions (a smart move for a major-network series). Instead, 1-8-7 has more in common with another quirky ABC comedy-drama cop show, the short-lived The Unusuals. (Fittingly, Williams was a writer’s assistant on that series). The New York-set Unusuals lasted only 10 episodes. With a little luck and the media’s increasing interest, Detroit 1-8-7’s unique locale might save it from the same fate.
Have you tried a coney dog with ketchup on it? It’s really not all that bad.