Review by Kara Gheldof

"Get ‘em solved. Make room for the next one. It might be the last assembly line in Detroit."

Spoken with resigned duty by former Sopranos star Michael Imperioli's central character, Detective Louis Fitch, the line that wraps up the premiere case also sets the tone for ABC's Detroit 1-8-7, the crime drama set in our own backyard, striking both intrigue and apprehension into locals.

Ever since it was announced, the idea of a crime drama set in Detroit has been a divisive one. The numbers following the title—187—actually refer to the homicide code in California, but has been perpetuated as a slang for murder beyond its origins, and is likely used here as a pop culture reference. The show centers on a group of homicide detectives in the Motor City and is nothing short of generic so far, but that hasn’t stopped Detroit residents and surrounding suburbanites from crying out in defense of their downtrodden city. It is indeed intimidating to wonder what a program focusing on murder will do for a city that already has one of the worst reputations for violence in the entire country.

Show creators hope for the best in their depiction; they never intended for the show to perpetuate negative stereotypes. Instead, they hope Detroit 1-8-7 will do justice to the misunderstood city, and perhaps they aren't wrong.

It's difficult to tell from a pilot exactly what direction a show will end up going, especially one that has been tampered with as much as Detroit 1-8-7. Originally filmed in Atlanta, the pilot episode had local Detroiters in an uproar over its location choice. As an appeasement, and for other reasons as well, nearly 15% of the pilot was re-shot in Detroit and production moved to Highland Park last summer. More importantly, however, the show was originally intended as a mockumentary style drama, in the spirit of NBC's The Office or ABC's Modern Family, an approach that was abandoned, possibly to avoid being stale or trendy, possibly to shift focus to another aspect of the drama.

Unfortunately, vestiges of the show’s mockumentary past still remain, evident in the way certain characters glance directly at the camera, the shaky-cam technique noticeable especially in chases, and the overall voyeuristic feel the way scenes are presented. Either it would have been too expensive to edit out or they were going for an unconventional style, but this pilot seems like the rough draft it is. One can hope that the show has settled in by the second or third episode, so we can get a feel for what Detroit 1-8-7 is really all about.

As for the content itself, it is, as previously mentioned, mostly generic to the genre—rookie cop is paired with unconventional veteran with high closing rate, sexy Latina cop now protects the streets she hails from, an older detective near retirement wonders if he’s really ready to leave the job behind. Even the premiere murder case is forgettable and pointless, and dialogue can be clunky at times.

Some things stand out—Imperioli’s Detective Fitch is exceedingly socially awkward, despite his high closure rate, and several times resorts to calling his rookie partner on the phone to criticize him, even though they are standing right next to each other. Some scenes are infused with sly humor, like when said rookie cop nearly allows a suspect chained to a playground slide to escape while he answers a call from his pregnant wife.

Most of Detroit 1-8-7's problems will smooth out over time. My only real complaint with the pilot is that is wasn’t distinctly Detroit enough. Apart from the assembly line reference, and a shout out to Coney dogs (possibly mistakenly called a chili dog, though more likely this was for exposition to non-Detroiters), we had a scene where two detectives are searching through a gutter for a 9MM shell casing, and find multiple other discarded shells instead. This is probably the most offensive thing about the pilot, but even then it's obvious the writers are being wry. It just didn't feel like it resonated like it could have. Give us a murderer whose motive rises from a poor economy, or a body dumped in an abandoned factory, or maybe even something set at Comerica Park or the Fox Theatre—anything to demonstrate the hard times Detroit has witnessed while also revealing the tragic beauty hidden underneath the decay.

It just feels as if Detroit 1-8-7 was too afraid to put its best foot forward. What we are left with is a hollow pilot without much soul, and one thing Detroit has in spades is soul. If they can get past the first few weeks and maintain decent ratings, it's possible Detroit 1-8-7 will find its footing and be the next NYPD Blue or Law and Order. At the very least, perhaps its generic qualities will help diffuse the bad rap after all, by presenting Detroit as a city no worse than any other big city. The location may have changed, but the crimes are still the same.

Detroit 1-8-7 airs Tuesday nights at 10 PM on ABC.

© Kara Gheldof, 2010