This week, on The Red Road: Phillip comes home, Jean is less than stable, and stupid teenagers are stupid
With Rectify, Top of the Lake, and The Returned, SundanceTV made a name for itself in 2013, creating and/or distributing thoughtful, stylish short-run television. The Red Road, their first series of 2014 and only second original series (the first being Rectify), doesn’t live up to these antecedents, at least in its pilot, but is nonetheless interesting. While it lacks the emotional depth and gorgeous visuals of these other series, the pilot makes the case for following for this first, six-episode season thanks to two of its central performances and its unique setting.
The Red Road centers on a white sheriff and his family and their interactions with a group of Ramapough Mountain Indians (the Ramapough Lenape Nation) living nearby. After a white college student from New York goes missing, shadowy Lenape ex-con Phillip Kopus (Jason Momoa) comes back home, where former high school classmate (and presumably more?) Jean Jensen (Julianne Nicholson) lives with her husband, Sheriff Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson) and their two daughters. Jean is haunted by the death of her brother, a death Phillip may have been involved in, and is struggling with sobriety when the events of the pilot complicate and further entangle Jean, Harold, and Phillip’s lives.
Though the pilot seems to present Harold as the main POV character, it’s Phillip and Jean that leap off the screen. Jason Momoa, well known to genre fans as first Ronon Dex on Stargate: Atlantis and then Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones, is immediately engaging as Phillip. Physically distinct actors are often assumed to be cast for their size, but Momoa’s charisma and intensity make him stand out far more than his 6’ 4” frame. The role has a lot of potential and seeing Momoa explore a far more human character than the Others he has often been cast as promises to be interesting.
As Jean, Julianne Nicholson also stands out this week, committing to the unlikeable and unstable elements of the character. Nicholson is an often underused and appreciated actor (in all the plaudits for Masters of Sex last year, few pointed to her stellar work as Dr. Lillian DePaul as one of the show’s highlights) and it would be wonderful if The Red Road finally brought her the acclaim she deserves. Unfortunately, while her performance is fantastic, the character is problematic and unrelatable. It’s a bold choice to have one of only three main characters acting this irrationally (from the audience’s perspective); viewers will give the show some leeway, particularly in a pilot, but they’ll need context for her behavior soon, or they’ll disconnect from her. Hopefully creator Aaron Guzikowski is aware of this and we’ll see adjustments to the character or the way she’s presented in the next few episodes.
The weak link in this premiere is Harold, who is an utterly bland lead. Martin Henderson all but fades from the screen next to either Momoa or Nicholson, but it’s difficult to lay the blame at his feet when he’s given so little to work with. Earnest, well-meaning everymen are tricky characters to make compelling; the writers will have their work cut out for them with Harold. They’ll also have their hands full with Rachel Jensen (Allie Gonino), who thus far is a fairly cookie cutter rebellious teen. Teenagers often make risky, stupid choices and these can present any number of story options for a television show. On TV, though, these decisions need to be motivated by more than teenager-ness. Rebellion for the sake of rebellion isn’t interesting and without more layers, characters like Rachel quickly become tiresome.
The final notable element of The Red Road’s pilot is its setting, among the Ramapough Mountain Indians of northern New Jersey and southern New York. Crime series, either procedural or serialized, are everywhere on TV at this point and those that stand out are the ones that distinguish themselves by the specificity of their style, their setting, or their characters. So far The Red Road’s lead characters have promise, but aren’t immediately memorable and while the series looks good, it lacks the cinematic naturalism of Top of the Lake and Rectify or sumptuous decadence of Hannibal. What it does have is a setting and community of potential characters all but unexplored previously on television. The glimpses we get this week of Lenape culture are interesting and feel authentic; hopefully there is much more of this world to come.
The Red Road may not be the next great SundanceTV series, but it has a lot of potential and if it can eschew its familiar elements in favor of its more engaging characters and unique setting, it could easily become a standout this spring.
What did you think of The Red Road’s pilot? Which characters are you most interested in? Anyone else stoked to see Tamara Tunie out of her SVU scrubs? When do you think we’ll find out about Jean and Phillip’s past? Post your thoughts below!