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 Mixology? Sundance’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?
AIRED ON 5/7/2015
Season 2 : Episode 6