Before You Watch 'Low Winter Sun,' Watch 'True Life: I'm Saving Detroit'

Here's a reminder that AMC debuts "Low Winter Sun" at 10 p.m. tonight after some other show about a teacher that operates a mobile math lab? To spread the goodness of math, I presume? I don't know what the kids are watching these days.

"Sun" is a gritty cop dramaTM set in Detroit and despite trying to avoid all the reviews about it and all the reporters giving away spoilers from it, I've seen the phrase "Detroit's 'The Wire'" kicked around enough to get a gist of what to expect. (I was an entertainment reporter during the days of "Detroit 1-8-7" and had press access to episodes before they'd air. This time around, I'd like to be a "regular" viewer just like you!)

Detroit has obviously made some big headlines recently and "Sun" will probably draw its fair share of TV bloggers connecting screenwriter-conceived plot points with real-life problems. But for a quick glimpse at some real-life Detroit, stream MTV's "True Life: I'm Saving Detroit" first.

When word of a Detroit-themed "True Life" episode went around, I was rightfully skeptical. I mean, this is MTV we're talking about, where teen moms go on to make sex tapes. And just the phrasing itself: saving Detroit. The idea that it's just so easy to ride in on a white horse and rescue the city in distress.

I was wrong about "True Life" and have been eating humble pie since I downloaded the episode from iTunes just after its premiere two weeks ago. Here's why.

In "True Life," you'll meet three young women, all high school students, each trying to make a difference in Detroit. That alone speaks volumes about some of the more recent documentation about Detroit. To see three young black women making a positive impact on film instead of another artist- or entrepreneur-driven flick interspersed with nights out at D'Mongos or the Old Miami is important. And this is not to say that artists and entrepreneurs should not be featured in documentaries, sitting on rooftop patios espousing how Detroit is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to find yourself and to be one with the change and all that, but just try to name a notable black female from Detroit in that same context that isn't making crepes or vegan soul food.

Each girl's story is not unique to Detroiters but perhaps to those with an outside view. Angela lives on the eastside and wants to do something about junk being dumped in her neighborhood, but faces resistance from apathetic neighbors, financing hurdles to clear the waste and slow response times from the city. She's not the only one in the city who attempts such campaigns, but it's important to show viewers that people in Detroit do care about their city. (Angela also gets props because she's chosen to go to Michigan State University, the best college in the universe.)

There's a scene with Angela and city councilwoman Saunteel Jenkins that might be throwaway to some, but more important if you dig deeper. Angela approaches Jenkins with her concerns about trash building up near her home, and Jenkins calmly but reasonably explains why the city is not in a position to rectify the situation as quickly as Angela and her neighbors would like. It's Jenkins' level-headed and dignified response that's significant, because the last time a student approached a Detroit city councilwoman with questions about the way things are done in the city...

...it didn't go so well.*

Another student, Jae'Lyne, is helping organize residents to board up vacant structures in her westside neighborhood. Again, she's not the only Detroiter who does this, but viewers get to see that people are making an effort. However, Jae'Lyne's mother, who worked for an automotive supplier but was injured on the job, is unable to keep up with rising expenses and is facing eviction. (I did predict that at least one subject would be tied to the auto industry somehow. This is Detroit and this is what we do.) I won't give away Jae'Lyne's story, but you'll walk away from hers feeling conflicted.

Finally, there's Alyssia, whose story hit the closest to home because she attends high school two blocks away from my house. I don't know Alyssia personally but I immediately recognized everywhere she filmed, from a party store on Elmhurst to a rundown home on the corner of Grand and Wildemere.

Alyssia wants to tear down blighted homes near Central High School — the city's oldest high school — because they're a danger to students walking home. She was assaulted in a vacant home and doesn't want other kids to go through the same.

It's all situated in Dexter-Linwood, a hodgepodge of streets sandwiched between Boston-Edison, a mansion-lined neighborhood where Henry Ford once lived, and Russell Woods, the neighborhood I grew up in that has remained an enclave for Detroit's black middle class through the years; Kwame Kilpatrick lived there before he became mayor. The streets of Dexter-Linwood are a mixed bag: Go down one street and you'll see kids playing in yards and old men waxing Cadillacs and Lincolns; go down a few streets more, and you'll see empty fields and scenes like this. It goes on like this street by street, block by block.

Despite what's there, people still live and maintain. Alyssia does all the stuff I used to do as a teenager growing up in Detroit, like ride the bus to Northland (shout-out to the Dexter bus), go to the local coney islands (it's not just American and Lafayette!) and just generally do those things that teenagers do. In that case, this really is an MTV show.

Granted, Alyssia's Detroit wasn't exactly the same as my Detroit. Homes that were vacant on my street now weren't when my mom and I would drive past them on our way to Cornerstone Middle School on Linwood and Chicago Boulevard. But you can see in Alyssia, and Angela and Jae'Lyne, too, a love for the city that's unexplainable to everyone else who has never lived here. You could write pages and pages trying to explain why people love Detroit, or you could just watch this episode of "True Life" and see it in action.

There's gotta be something in the water that's making me not so cynical about the recent portrayals of Detroit, from the Google ad to the Beyonce video. Or, maybe documentarians are finally starting to get the story right. I'm torn on whether to call "True Life" the best Detroit documentary out of them all.

[*Where are they now? Charlie LeDuff is obviously Charlie LeDuff, but no longer "Charlie LeDuff of The Detroit News." Monica Conyers was later indicted and convicted on federal corruption charges, served federal time, and has been released and living quietly. She is still married to John Conyers, who has been a congressman since the U.S. won independence in 1776. Sam Riddle, the man talking at 1:25, was Conyers' assistant and was also tied into corruption charges, but is probably best-known these days as Detroit's favorite political curmudgeon who writes a tell-it-like-it-is column in the Michigan Citizen when he's not busy pulling guns on former state congresswomen while in bed with younger women. The 8th grader who won this epic debate is now a student at Michigan State University, which, I repeat, is the greatest college in the universe.]