Into the woods. But without the singing. And with a lot more stuff to make you give up on people – but in a good way!
Dark – as in absence of light, just as much as in tone or levels of psychosis – is the new black on hour-long dramas. Chalk some of it up to our current fetishizing (and importing) of Scandinavian crime shows, chalk more of it up to some consideration of the bleak state of the human condition in this modern, technologically-alienating world blah blah I didn’t take psychology – for whatever chalk you decide to use, we’re in a golden dark age of charismatic evildoers, internally-tortured and certainly flawed protagonists, entire communities and societies that are rotten and crumbling within, sociopaths with or without Aspergers, and dim, damp, cold, muted shots.
Is this veritable flood of depravity becoming just a wash – be it of blood, bleached colors, and/or tension between characters of horrible things not said – distinguishable only by recognizable stars or where a show falls on the spectrum of disgusting viscera to traumatizing lack of humanity? I hope not, since such programming accounts for about two-thirds of what I’m watching these days.1 And of course not: Like cop shows and medical dramas and office sitcoms before them, the dark shows of today can take a new tack and can always do a good job or not of executing the tropes around which they are built.
Sundance’s The Red Road2 does a few things different – a rural setting, for one, and New Jersey no less – and dances a line between using its aesthetic and just settling for its aesthetic. Mostly it lands on the right side while sketching out the myriad divisions between and within families and groups in fictional Walpole – a federally-unrecognized American Indian tribe; law-enforcement and law-breakers; single mothers and mothers in recovery both trying, sometimes lashing out, sometimes failing to protect their own. It doesn’t create these ideas and then just let them sit. There is always movement under all the wariness, violence – motivated in a half dozen ways – below and sometimes above the surface of most exchanges.
Jason Momoa is spot on as the hulking prodigal son of a local crime boss and Native mother. Though the character’s layers, promised early on, never really emerge and the episode’s closing scene feels like a bit out of a pilot script, the performance is one to watch. Illustrative spoiler: Midway through, Momoa casually cocks and fires a gun at a cohort, no pause, no preamble. It turns out to be an unloaded air pistol, but where the show and he had brought the character made it beyond plausible that the gun was real. In a flash, you’re hoping that this bear of a man isn’t that callous, and knowing that he just may well be.
Other moments spring out sharpley and resonate just as strongly – Julianne Nicholson’s explosion at her husband late in the episode is almost entirely the same three words repeated over and over and it draws one in like nothing else in the hour. Even a series of short exchanges between a white local cop (the scuffed but as-yet unbroken Martin Henderson, playing said husband) and a Native woman and single mother (the elegantly worn Tamara Tunie) spread throughout the episode move both characters through a gamut of very real emotions without becoming saccharine.
Those scenes are momentary triumphs, eruptions that give the dark, brooding nature of characters and the dark, overcast forest setting a sense of momentum, if not direction. The worry is there’s nothing under these bits of non-heroes and sort-of-villains, that there will be no plot at all or that it will be eye-rolling. The word ‘mesmerizing’ is being tossed around, particularly in reference to Momoa, and it’s often deserved; but as soon as The Red Road spends too much of its time with an under-acted or under-written character, or seems to be pointing at a bit of human misery going ‘look what we made!’ – once it starts telling instead of showing – that spell is going to be broken and it’ll lose all steam.3
I hope that doesn’t happen – still a bit soul-numbing, The Red Road could be a very nice change of pace.
Meanwhile, A&E’s Those Who Kill, a definite Scandinavian import4 that uses Pittsburgh as its cold, unfeeling backdrop and Chloë Sevigny as its psychologically damaged lead is, sadly, empty. Semi-procedural, ‘anchored’ by two deeply flawed characters – Sevigny as a homicide detective and James D’Arcy as a psychology professor with his own issues – Those Who Kill, I think quite unintentionally, becomes a study in style over substance. Doubtless there are still depths of human depravity and unfeelingness to be shown on television – including gruesomeness of crimes which are, to an increasingly large degree, a form of set dressing nowadays – but Those Who Kill relies on the weight or the ‘shock’ of these revelations by themselves. The character notes are painted on – a real problem when there’s not much procedural happening, and worse in a show that clearly plans to put the darkness of the killers to the side while it explores the darkness of those who hunt those who kill.
Perhaps the characters will grow somewhere, but we’re hearing the numbers for the premiere were so low this show is likely to get burned off before anyone can make any corrections.