Detroit 1-8-7: TV Looks at a Trouble City

Officials say a new cop show gives the city a bad rap. But Detroit needs more attention, not less

  • Share
  • Read Later
Illustration by Francisco Caceres for TIME

Growing up near Detroit in the '70s and '80s, I was jealous of other cities that had their own TV shows. New York City, L.A., Boston, Chicago — even Milwaukee had both Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. (Milwaukee!) Eventually, Detroit got a few sitcoms (Martin, Home Improvement), but no series ever really explored the dramatic possibilities of this sprawling Rust Belt city.

Cut to the first scene of Detroit 1-8-7, which makes its debut on ABC Sept. 21. A policewoman shows us the homicide-division whiteboard, too small to accommodate the growing list of murders. "We may be the last assembly line left in Detroit," she says. Later, a homicide cop is searching for a spent bullet on a roadside and finds it — after sorting through a slew of other bullets.

It's not exactly a tourism brochure. Some locals say Hollywood is giving the city a Gucci-shod kick while it's down: 24% unemployment, a hobbled auto industry and now this? ABC didn't help matters by shooting the pilot in Atlanta or by making a promo that erroneously gave Detroit the highest murder rate in the U.S. (It comes in fourth.) City councilman Kwame Kenyatta sponsored a resolution asking ABC to change the show's title, which he says equates the city with murder. (187 is police code and slang for homicide.) The resolution failed. But the question remains: Does a show set in a troubled city have a responsibility beyond the ratings?

Detroit 1-8-7's producers say yes. Beyond the economic benefit — the show moved production to Detroit, adding an estimated $25 million to city coffers for the season — executive producer David Zabel says he wants to treat the Motor City as a character. "We have a burden," he says, "because we're the only ongoing series that's paying attention to Detroit." Among the subjects Zabel plans to cover are architectural preservation, community-improvement programs and the urban-farming movement (in which the city's abandoned land is being reclaimed for agriculture).

All potentially interesting stories. But they're told through the frame of Detroiters getting killed, over and over.

Now, murder in an American city is not exactly a new subject for TV. A Law & Order producer once estimated that more Manhattanites died on the franchise's three shows than do in real life. CSI kills people gruesomely in Miami and Las Vegas every week. But those cities have associations beyond violence: the beach, the Strip, Wall Street. Detroit has cars and Motown, mainly glories of the past.

It's not the responsibility of any fiction to idealize its subject or buck it up. Most critics (this one included) would call HBO's The Wire the best cop show ever made, and while creator David Simon wrote it with love for his native city, Baltimore, it was tough love. The Wire chronicled gang violence and corruption, humanizing cops and criminals alike in a complex picture of the city's social troubles. Pols didn't always love it, but it was as rich a tapestry as a Victorian novel. (For the record, neither Zabel nor Detroit 1-8-7 creator Jason Richman are native Detroiters.)

Detroit, like Baltimore, has troubles that need more attention, not less. Indeed, the least convincing argument against Detroit 1-8-7 is that it should pick on a city with less crime. Do we want to encourage cop shows to be even less realistic?

A crime drama in a troubled city is not obligated to be sunny and positive. But it is obligated to be good. New York City can survive another lousy, boring procedural — God knows there will be another dozen, and 15 Manhattan sitcoms besides. Judging by the pilot (currently being reshot), Detroit 1-8-7 does not look bad. It's more character-focused than a typical procedural and has a strong, multiethnic cast (including The Sopranos' Michael Imperioli). And it has a sense of the city's history: an African-American cop, referencing the city's white-flight past, says he's been on the force so long that "when I started, half of the suspects were white."

But it also faces limits. A pay-cable show like The Wire or Simon's Treme, set in New Orleans, is able to challenge fans because it can survive with a tiny audience. Detroit 1-8-7 needs millions more viewers, which means pressure to stick to easy-to-follow, CSI-like plots. Such shows have little time to flesh out civilian characters, who end up as flatly drawn villains and victims. (It's an issue made especially tricky by Detroit's racial divide: black-and-white storytelling has literally black-and-white overtones in a largely African-American city.) Still, shows like NYPD Blue have told character-rich, morally complex stories under big-network constraints.

Detroit is a fantastic subject for drama because of its people, its history and, yes, its problems. As a critic, I'll be watching Detroit 1-8-7 with professional interest. As a native Michigander, I'll be hoping that it gets good and that Detroit gets lucky.

This article originally appeared in the September 6, 2010 issue of TIME.