'Detroit 1-8-7's Motown Cred


ABC premiered its new cop drama Detroit 1-8-7 at the New York Television Festival last night, the first broadcast TV show in recent memory to be set in Michigan. That is, at least since Home Improvement, which was not filmed in the state and whose only sense of place came from Tim Allen’s wardrobe of Detroit Lions and Wayne State University sweatshirts.

And as executive producer David Zabel told the audience last night, there were some in Detroit who were understandably concerned about the representation of their city on the small screen to be in a show about homicide police.

As someone who spent the first 18 years of her life living within 30 miles of Detroit proper, I was curious to see if the Detroit of the show felt authentic or fell back on easy stereotypes. The pilot was a little bit of both. There were efforts to gain credibility with the hometown audience, like when Sgt. Jesse Longford (James McDaniel) chides his partner, Det. Aman Mahajan (Shaun Majumder), for putting ketchup on his coney dog. But there were the easy jabs, too, like when Longford and Mahajan are looking for a shell on the side of the road to match a bullet found in a victim, and come across two of the wrong caliber before finding the match. “That’s what happens when you look for bullets in Detroit,” Longford says.

Executive producer Jason Richman, who also wrote the pilot, is not from Detroit, but was inspired to set a show there after a visit to the city a few years ago. Actually shooting in Detroit was not always a sure thing for 1-8-7, though the tax breaks the state is offering certainly didn’t hurt, according to Zabel. But the decision was ultimately made on the grounds of authenticity. “The only way to make the show and not be generic was to shoot in Detroit,” he said.

Which is true – the visual landscape of Detroit is striking, and can’t be replicated in Anytown, U.S.A. The scores of abandoned buildings and general feeling of emptiness is all I’ve ever known the city to be, but is always shocking to every out-of-town friend I bring to visit.

According to Richman, the show is making a conscious effort to involve the people of Michigan in the series, building a sound stage in Detroit and hiring as many local cast and crew members as possible. He hopes if the series sticks around, it will be the beginning of a film industry infrastructure in the state. “We’re connected to the city now and invested in its future,” he said. And he says future plot lines will try to show the city in transition, the underdog side that’s trying to turn itself around. The result, Zabel thinks, is a show that “portrays Detroit in a way that’s more fully informed than the news.”

Without Detroit as the backdrop, 1-8-7 is just another cop show. Let’s hope that as the series continues, the writers and producers make every effort to show viewers the real city, not just the one ripped from the headlines.