The Sundance Channel had an outstanding track record in 2013 for delivering some of the best television not only of the year, but in recent memory. However, most of its programming was rebroadcast from other (usually foreign) markets, with only the excellent Rectify being a wholly-owned production. The Red Road is now the second production that Sundance owns outright, and it falls in step with much of the channel’s “new for you” programming, including Top of the Lake and The Returned. But it’s a tricky line to walk sometimes for dramas to have enough momentum to keep them from becoming too mired in darkness. Hit the jump to see which side of the line The Red Road falls on.
The Red Road comes from writer Aaron Guzikowski, who also penned the dark crime movie Prisoners. The Red Road — filmed in Georgia, but set in an area bordering New York and New Jersey — starts off at twilight, and stays there for its first two (of an eventual six) episodes. The darkness is both real and symbolic. Like Top of the Lake, Red Road explores the nuances of a small town where everyone is connected, often in unexpected ways.
The story revolves around Sheriff Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson), who is quickly losing his grip on his alcoholic wife Jean (Julianne Nicholson). But Jean’s problems are almost immediately shown to be beyond liquor. Harold attempts to mediate her blowups with their daughter Rachel (Allie Gonino), who is dating Junior (Kiowa Gordon), a member of the Ramapo Mountain Indian tribe, against their wishes. (Jean has a very personal reason to despise the tribe, and Junior’s family in particular). As Jean spirals further out of control and Rachel becomes more involved with Junior, Harold begins to discover things about himself, and how far he is willing to go, to protect his family.
The Jensens ties to the Ramapo tribe is layered, and Junior’s brother Phillip (Jason Momoa) is at the center of most of the drama. He is both a thorn and an ally to Harold as things with Jean escalate, and how Phillip connects with the Jensens, as well as his own estranged family, is the true crux of the story. Momoa is a stand-out here as the multi-faceted Phillip, who runs a drug con, and may be responsible for the death of one of his high school friends. But the way Momoa plays him — with a wry smile and studied violence — gives Phillip great dimension.
Like Rectify, The Red Road is not a limited series, just a short season for what may become a longer production if it proves popular. But despite Momoa and Nicholson’s performances (Nicholson’s Jean is a tour de force of instability), there’s no relief from the show’s darkness. Death lurks behind every corner, and everything is shrouded by a sinister cloud.
Compared to other Sundance series, it’s reminiscent of Top of the Lake and The Returned‘s unease, but lacks some of the fringe characters and long shots of natural beauty that might keep it from collapsing under the weight of its own gloom. And unlike Rectify, none of the characters are easy to connect with personally. It’s also unclear how the show will continue to portray and expand upon the members of the Ramapo tribe. The show could be an opportunity to provide a rarely portrayed look at the politics of identity regarding tribal life in America, or it could squander it by not delving too deeply into the Ramapo’s motivations and way of life.
Despite what The Red Road lacks in energy, it does create a sense of mystery and of history among its key players. The exposition is easy and natural, and the show hits the ground running, immersing viewers immediately into its world. It’s ultimately a family drama, but one that shows the definition of family is not always easy. Like Phillip, the show may be much more than first seems. Given time to unfold, it may prove to be one of the better dramas of 2014, provided it occasionally raises its head from the mists.
The Red Road premieres Thursday, February 27th on The Sundance Channel.