The Red Road Series Premiere Review: Why So Serious?

By Ryan Sandoval

Feb 28, 2014

The Red Road S01E01: "Arise My Love, Shake Off This Dream"

TV is so good right now that it’s getting harder to distinguish actual achievements in the medium from something that only seems like envelope-pushing drama. The bar has been raised by the likes of HBO, AMC, and FX, and in addition to a certain level of production value, a show must also have a unique voice in order to stand out. Television can look and sound respectable, but that’s basically all TV these days, so there’s got to be something extra to attract modern viewers such as ourselves. Sorry, we've evolved. Otherwise, why not just watch MixologySundance’s second foray into original programming forces a Native American ex-con and a white-man cop into each other’s worlds as part of an illegal cover-up. On paper, The Red Road is a show about family troubles, cultural prejudice, and moral ambiguity in the name of a greater good. And even though it's perfectly watchable, the execution could benefit from a more specific, creative point of view and further portrayal of the modern-day Ramapo Mountain peoples.

So the basic set-up is this: In the lands between New York and New Jersey, former Khal Jason Momoa plays Phillip Kopus, the aforementioned ex-con with ties to both the tribal world of the Lenape people and the criminal world. Kopus is tasked with keeping his screw-up "brother" (Longmire’s Zahn McClarnon) in line after the dude commits a murder. Meanwhile, investigating police officer Harold Jensen (New Zealand’s own Martin Henderson) has to deal with an alcoholic wife (Julianne Nicholson) and rebellious teenage daughter Rachel (The Lying Game's Allie Gonino) while also solving crimes. Things get a little murky though, when Rachel refuses to end her relationship with her Native American boyfriend Junior (Kiowa Gordon), sending her mother on a rampage that leaves a Native American boy dead on a rural road. Will Kopus make good on his offer to keep witnesses quiet, or is he up to something more sinister? So goes the central conflict between The Red Road’s main duo.   

Straightforward summary for a straightforward plot. Really, this premiere played it way safe in terms of balancing character/universe introduction with an actual standalone story. For being only one sixth of this season’s whole, the events of "Arise My Love, Shake Off This Dream" sure were basic. Essentially, "this is who this person is, and this is their deal." The few diversions from direct world-building were also the show’s most interesting moments, such as when Jean surprisingly decides to drive off from the scene of her drunken traffic crime, or Kopus’s shady interactions with the young and adventurous Rachel. Offhanded displays like these suggest deeper levels to what otherwise feel like stock characters on the surface. There were instances when interesting information about a character was relayed in dialogue form, too, but lines like "My brother’s not the best chief we’ve had..." during footage of some old guy talking at a political meeting feel clunky and expositional pretty much 100 percent of the time. 

Acting-wise, everyone here is doing a fine job. Momoa gets to flex his sinister chops as a sleazy bro getting back to the grind, and Henderson brings a tenderness to what could have been a very stoic role. In the premiere, Nicholson broke out the waterworks during a liquor meltdown and it was real sad, as we learned that Jean's grief stems from the drowning death of her brother long ago, at the hands of drugs and an association with Kopus. Tom Sizemore, who plays Kopus's addict father, uses his real-life druggie persona to an advantage with lines like, "You wanna suck my titty, you’re gonna smell my cologne," rapid-fire through clenched druggie teeth. Law & Order: SVU veteran Tamara Tunie seems raring to let loose and probably has the most interesting role as Marie, a "mother" to wayward youth and former guardian of Momoa's Kopus, but she didn't get to do much in the pilot aside from recite information on other individuals. These performers know how to perform, and it should be fun to see each refine her/his particular character.  

At the end of the day, though, the actual experience of watching The Red Road is a lot less fun than hearing about it. I understand that murder and cover-ups and tribal relations are serious things, but that doesn’t mean the surrounding folks and filmmaking need to be so reverent. It's possible to have a drama that's also exhilarating or clever or daring or original in its presentation, but Sundance’s latest offering might suffer from an excess of grimness, and a lack of artistic flair, in the same way as AMC’s Low Winter Sun. And it's not even grimness in the violent, dead-bodyish sense, but really just how serious everything is. (True Detective for example is about as grim as TV gets, but still manages to avoid being too solemn via mind-blowing cinematography and immersive sound design). Just have fun with it, Sundance! There's plenty in The Red Road worth exploring, namely the ins and outs of tribal living and relations, but the interesting elements might be too hidden underneath familiar genre touchstones to give the show enough momentum to go anywhere groundbreaking. Fingers crossed it finds its way.

What did you think of The Red Road's series premiere? Will you be back for Episode 2?

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  • zinodvd Mar 23, 2014

    The only nice thing about this series is the gorgeous Jason Momoa.

  • geoffmaze Mar 14, 2014

    Anyone still watching this show? I decided not to get back after ep.1, I'm not losing a lot of sleep over it but was I wrong to cut out on it?

  • dif_frent Apr 12, 2014

    In my opinion it was definitely a wrong decision. The show was excellent. However, if you are a fan of say... "Arrow", you did take the right decision.

  • somner1 Mar 02, 2014

    I heard that scripts are supposed to lure a viewer in with in the first 5-10 pages. Which means about 5-10 minutes. I never felt that lure or hook.

    My wife and I watched it but by the end....we turned and pretty much both said to each other "It wasn't what I expected or hoped for. It was just....blah."

    We will watch the next episode...but so far, neither one of us are excited about it. The whole good guy and bad guy blending the lines of good and bad is nothing new. Nothing exciting really happened. New Jersey indians is a bit of a different setting, which is interesting. far, I could go pass on the rest of the season based on what I have seen so far.

    Thats really too bad. I was expecting a lot out of this show. And you are right, the bar has been raised with other outstanding shows. Rectify for sure set a standard for Sundance. Red Road may not make it past a first season.

  • geoffmaze Feb 28, 2014

    Sad to say but I found the Pilot very underwhelming. Didn't care for Jason Mamoa. Hard to put a finger on it but this show didn't have a whole lot of meat on the bone. Maybe it's because I'm also watching True Detective and THAT show blows it out of the water. It's excellent. This one...Meh..
    Honestly I think the biggest problem is there wasn't a single character on whom I could rally around or cheer for.
    Low Winter Sun got a mention here, and I know that show had its critics but I liked that show, and that show did draw me in after ep.1.
    Having said all that, I'll give RR another watch, it's only 6 eps. so if it improves, and/or finds its way I'll probably see it through, but at this stage there is no way I'll recommend it to anyone and its very possible I'll cut out early in Ep.2

  • peterspoor33 Mar 03, 2014

    Agree about Low Winter Sun, it had griminess some people probably didn't care for as it was filled with seedy characters in a almost apocalyptic decaying Detroit but to say it lacked artistic flair is completely untrue.
    I couldn't believe how just about every character had resigned themselves to self destruction and the one character that hadn't and had some ambition despite it being criminal was shot dead.
    Red Road may make an interesting time killer but over the rebellious star-crossed whatevers.

  • klotensen Feb 28, 2014

    There's plenty in The Red Road worth exploring, namely the ins and outs of tribal living and relations, but the interesting elements might be too hidden underneath familiar genre touchstones to give the show enough momentum to go anywhere groundbreaking. Fingers crossed it finds its way.

    Amen! After the pilot I can't see a path here, but I also couldn't after watching the pilot of Ray Donovan. Then again I dropped RD after episode two. They really have to present me something the next time I tune in.

  • linewton Feb 28, 2014

    I wanted to like this but it just fell flat. It lacked the suspense that I was hoping for. I'm not sure if it was the casting or the writing or both. Dark shows (like True Detective) need some dark humor to break the tension but I never felt the tension to begin with. I'm not a fan of Jason momoa, he comes across as a characture of the big, dumb brute and had an annoying smirk in almost every scene. The plot of a basically decent cop covering up for criminal acts of the dysfunctional family are very cliched, as was the whole premise. I'll probably give it another week but they need to pick up the pace. I did enjoy seeing Julianne Nicholson stretch her chops as the itchy addict. Having lived with one and their explosive, irrational actions, that felt authentic.

  • left4dead Feb 28, 2014

    Yup, not good when you're checking your watch rather than engaged with the plot. It was really just average and not a patch on Rectify. There is a real problem now for network shows, the CSI franchise notwithstanding ( which seems to occupy another critic free universe), how do you compete with the likes of BB and now True Detective? This felt and played like a network show, or worse the first act of a not very good TV movie.Good TV starts with good writing, this didn't have an building blocks.
    You Americans are normally so lucky, you have a tradition of great crime writers and present day guys like Lehane, Pelecanos, Steve Hamilton etc etc are a great resource to build on.
    But this show? DOA.

  • meee223 Feb 28, 2014

    Nobody in Canada can watch any shows that Sundance airs.

  • terminaltrip421 Mar 03, 2014

    they can if they used other means utilized among other interweberz (torrents)

  • lr2jules Feb 28, 2014

    Agree that the pilot was not outstanding, but I enjoyed it enough that I'll watch again next week and probably the weeks after that. It's only 6 episodes, and it's better than most of what airs on Thursday nights.

  • Haloprogram Feb 28, 2014

    Elementary, Vikings, Big Bang Theory... nah my thursdays are set! Still giving this show a chance tho, even if the pilot was tedious.

  • lr2jules Mar 01, 2014

    Not that interested in Elementary or BBT. They are okay if nothing else is on. Haven't watched Vikings.

  • somner1 Mar 02, 2014

    Highly recommend Vikings. Season 2 just started this week. The first season is only 9 episodes. Good blend of action and drama

  • peterspoor33 Mar 03, 2014

    I concur, watch Vikings!

  • funnylacie Feb 28, 2014

    I like the actors in this but I thought it was boring. I don't think i'm going to watch any more episodes.

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