Drugs. Depression. Darkness. Doofuses. Sundance’s The Red Road has it all.
There’s a fine line between damning something with faint praise and saying that it underachieves, that it is good-but-not-great. And when you like a show overall, as I did with Sundance’s The Red Road, there’s a tendency to be even more critical of what went wrong, perhaps out of disappointment. Let me be clear(ish), then, that I was frustrated by missed opportunities and flaws in this six episode inaugural season, but can’t deny The Red Road generally stays in ‘very good’ territory with occasional side trips into Wowsville and a couple of unfortunate meanders into Dude, Really? City.
I need better metaphors, but I won’t get them from this show. The Red Road is a gritty crime drama, the sort with criminals who are more than just evil (many have daddy issues) and cops who are definitely flawed (one gets caught between protecting his family and doing his job), the sort where dialog between people with emotional connections is almost always delivered in intense, breathy whispers. There are plenty of genre conventions to go around, just disguised a bit better than most by the appropriately dreary gray skies and damp forests.
Where the show stumbles is in respecting its characters (and actors) to deliver the plot; somehow this six episode run feels both meandering and rushed.1 Its standout flaw (thankfully rare) is telegraphing connections and parallels in its storylines, either jumping quickly through character revelations or, in a completely unearned section at the end of episode 4, loudly announcing ‘Hey! This old recording is paralleling something happening in the present!'2 That bit really got my goat, likely because it came on the heels of too-long stretches that lacked the two things The Red Road does do differently:
The performances by several actors – Jason Momoa is just the clearest example – are spectacular mannered studies of voice and physicality to create an embodiment of menace and threat.3 Tom Sizemore and his shades-of-Pacino delivery gave great juice to his scattered scenes to the point that, in the final episode, he is the absolute last person you want to see arrive, violently, when he arrives. When allowed, several other characters bring their own threatening energy. Sometimes it’s skittish, unexpected, as with Julianne Nicholson; sometimes it’s sharp and violent, often teens being brutal or callous with one another; it’s always unnerving.4
Meanwhile, The Red Road treads newer ground with its inclusion of Native peoples as a primary, active entity in the storyline. Race and class tensions are a strong (though fickle) means to juicing crime stories5 and the show adds to its particular flavor of raw by using actual, contemporary issues facing particular tribes in New Jersey.6 Most of all, the show handles the very idea of invisible (or openly hidden) divisions deftly; no grandstanding, no heart-wrenching monologues about wanting everyone to love one another. The police chief makes a matter-of-fact comment that “You know they don’t like cops.” and moves on without study; tribal leaders and activists weigh the political costs of immediate us-vs-them conflicts against the long, slow push for federal recognition; the interracial teenage couple are a couple of horny kids who, when hurt, hurt one another with barbs about the other’s race. I’m overstating the prevalence of race and class as a plot point in the series – it’s there, it’s part of the fabric of this story – but I can’t overstate how well all the pieces, the comments, individually and taken together, land.
The Red Road delivered a solid premise with a fresh, lurking tension that exploded brilliantly from time to time. It’s that brilliance, though, that makes its inability to get consistent traction on its various entwined storylines all the more maddening.7 Take, by way of closing example, the season’s final scene. It relies (fairly) on Momoa’s physicality and Henderson’s character’s (a little too slow) growth, and (unfairly) on an external threat revealed in… episode four I think? – the result being equal turns sudden, scary, and satisfying.
Less undermined than prevented from reaching its heights, where I thought this show was going was never quite where it headed. But it is where it wound up, for better and for worse.
- Another symptom: I lost any sense of the show’s scale over the course of the run. Timelines seem unimportant – Junior’s severely bruised face clears up nicely over… two days? A week? I have no idea – and the size of the town, physically and its population, seems to fluctuate. ↵
- Underscoring the show’s missed opportunities, those recordings were, elsewhere, a very effective means of subtly introducing several plot moves, like a (spoiler) previous relationship between Phillip and Jean. ↵
- Why do I feel like I’m writing undergraduate English papers again? ↵
- Martin Henderson as the cop caught between worlds is the one exception to this, although he showed flashes of being able to match the other actors in the series’ final third. ↵
- See: The Wire, The Sopranos, heck Sons of Anarchy occasionally does something interesting with those tropes ↵
- There’s some fascinating, and infuriating, history to the Lenape people, well worth reading about. ↵
- Again – not that mad at the series; just a bit disappointed. And I still watched and will watch season 2. ↵