DETROIT — When "NYPD Blue" veteran James McDaniel signed on for a new ABC cop show called "Detroit 1-8-7," he served as cheerleader-in-chief in the creators' campaign to shoot in the Motor City.
The actor figured they didn't stand a chance because it had never been done. But he craved the authenticity of being in the downtrodden city – far from traditional acting hubs and his beloved New York – even if it meant suffering for his art.
McDaniel was floored on both fronts: The network brass approved filming the show in Detroit, and he found the city to be both inviting and inspiring.
"We get here, and imagine my surprise: My wife and I actually love it. We really get it," he said while waiting to shoot a scene on a weed-pocked parking lot near downtown.
The first network television drama to set up shop full time in Detroit is discovering a city that goes beyond its Rust Belt reputation. And its writers, producers and actors hope the struggling town is a secret weapon for "Detroit 1-8-7" as it prepares to enter the crowded market of crime procedurals.
The title of the show, which debuts Tuesday at 10 p.m. EDT, uses a former California police code for homicide and features fictional members of a Detroit Police homicide unit. The real city has been unable to shake its reputation as a haven for violence, but those involved say they can show the grit without glorifying it.
"People's fear was it was just going to be street crime and gang violence and things like that. It's really not," said star Michael Imperioli, relaxing after a full day of rehearsals and shooting in Detroit's Cass Corridor. "A lot of it is not about the dead – it's about the living – the people who are connected and affected by these crimes."
McDaniel and Imperioli, whose credits include HBO's "The Sopranos" and playing another prime-time detective on ABC's short-lived "Life on Mars," are the best known actors on "1-8-7." The diverse cast also includes Erin Cummings ("Mad Men"), Aisha Hinds ("True Blood") and Shaun Majumder ("Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle").
On a recent day of heavy shooting for the show's fourth episode, Imperioli joined several other actors for early morning scenes.
His Detective Louis Fitch and colleagues have been called to a playground behind a school where a girl's body has been found. After some run-throughs, the actor consults the script one last time and stashes it on a cart that includes "realistic drying blood" in "Aaron's On-Set Blood Bag."
The real neighborhood near downtown, once synonymous with crime and vice in Detroit, is now in transition – improving or declining, depending on the block.
"Look at this building here – it almost looks like a castle, and it's crumbling, covered with ivy," Imperioli said, pointing to a vacant apartment building that's serving as a preservation project in the episode. "At the same time, you see this alternative movie theater and there's a kind of really cool vintage store.
"The neighborhood was a glorious place that went to seed for a while, and you can see all of it in this tiny little corner of the city."
"Detroit 1-8-7" creator Jason Richman was developing the drama at the same time he visited friends in Detroit. He saw the city's architecture and decided it was the right setting for his show.
Richman and others involved in the show's creation also wanted to make it in Detroit – and approval no doubt came a little faster thanks to Michigan's tax credits for film and TV production. They're among the most generous in the country, refunding up to 42 percent of a company's qualified expenditures.
Still, it was far from a sure thing, as the new tax breaks haven't yet produced the massive infrastructure or talent pool expected for fast-paced TV production schedules. Executive producer Kevin Hooks said it's mainly the small things that take more time, such as securing approval to shoot in certain locations.
Real events in the city also played a role in changing the concept of the show, whose original pilot was shot documentary-style, primarily in Atlanta. A reality TV crew from A&E's "The First 48" was with Detroit police during a May raid in which a 7-year-old girl was fatally shot. Angry city officials banned the tag-along practice afterward.
Hooks said the faux-documentary approach also confused test audiences, who wondered why actors looked at the camera.
"We certainly wanted to keep the voyeuristic feel, the feeling of the audience participating and being a fly on the wall, if you will, with our characters," he said. "That's still present. In fact, it now flourishes because we don't have to worry about being in one point of view all the time."
The creators say they want to be sensitive without shying away from grim realities of city life. Phonz Williams, one of nine writers and a Detroit native, said he strives to balance the horrific and hopeful.
"Unfortunately, I've lost a few personal friends to senseless violence and even though they're gone, I don't ever want to ... reduce their lives to that one single act," he said.
For Hinds, who plays Lt. Maureen Mason, finding authenticity led her to having lunch with Marilyn Hall-Beard, one of Detroit's first female, African-American police inspectors.
"What kept her going, as exhausting as the job was, was that it gave people in Detroit who didn't have a voice a voice," Hinds said. "She was like, 'We're not here to heal the world or heal Detroit, but if you can one at a time fight crime you're doing something.'"
McDaniel, who often stops his car and talks to city residents on his way into work, said the challenge is translating the rich character of the city onto the screen.
"It's like a Christmas present: Every day we've been unwrapping it, we've been finding other stuff," he said as daylight waned over Detroit's skyline. "It's so fertile – the energy is so ripe here."
ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Co.