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One of the most difficult challenges of ambitiously trying to make a drama that can play in the big leagues of established series is getting everything – absolutely everything – right. In The Red Road, the new six-part series from Sundance TV, one crucial element comes up lacking.
Television is a writer’s medium and Red Road has enough hiccups there to disrupt what is otherwise a very well-acted, well-shot and intriguing series.
That’s not at all to suggest that Red Road is bad or without merit – it’s just trying to get from start to finish with a pretty important blown spark plug making it more bumpy than it ought to be.
Creator and writer Aaron Guzikowski sets up a story with a lot of potential. It focuses on conflict between the small Native American Lanape tribe in the mountains of New Jersey and the Walpole, N.J., police. Generations of tension expands dangerously when a young Indian boy is badly injured in a hit-and-run accident that the police are having trouble with. Witnesses believe it was Jean Jensen (Julianne Nicholson), wife of police officer Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson) and daughter of a state senator.
That part is true – and the back story of how Jean got up into the mountains on a dark night is initially interesting, but then highlights some of the problems with the Red Road script.
The Jensens, who have two daughters, are having marital problems because of Jean’s drinking. While trying to sober up, she’s having difficulty keeping her emotions in check while dealing with 16-year-old Rachel (Allie Gonino), who is secretly seeing Junior (Kiowa Gordon), a Lanape. This is more than just a race or class issue, we find out, when Jean – prone to flying off the handle at Rachel – discloses that her twin brother drowned when some guy from the Lanape tribe gave him drugs and watched him drown.
That – and her shaky battle with sobriety – are enough to set up the major hook of Red Road, which involves loving and dutiful husband Harold making the ill-fated decision to help protect his wife (in part to keep his teetering family from splintering). When Jean went off in panic and rage to find missing Rachel – who she rightly suspected was out doing God knows what with Junior — she brought Harold’s service revolver with her and then lost it. The gun is returned to Harold by the menacing (and charismatic) Phillip Kopus (Jason Momoa), an ex-con who has a history both with Jean and Harold (they went to high school together and Phillip dated Jean). In a remote meeting spot, Phillip tells Harold that he can make the issue disappear – promising that none of the witnesses will give a statement implicating his wife, in return for some unknown favor later. This is the “lines will cross” moment that Red Road boasts as its tag-line.
But it’s also part of the trouble. With Momoa and Henderson – and most everyone else – acting the hell out of their material, the story lets them down. While it’s not impossible that a good cop would make a bad decision, it comes too quickly and neatly for maximum believability. And then Red Road veers off by planting the notion that Jean is hearing voices – and seeing things. The voices sometimes control her and the images help viewers see the chaos in her mind – but the tone shift is too drastic and undercuts the gravitas that Red Road was building up.
Beyond that, there a number of instances where characters have dubious motivation changes that don’t seem to suit them. And while Red Road piles on the plot – there are a lot of other plates spinning as Guzikowski unspools the story – it begins to buckle under the weight. For instance, Harold and the rest of the police department are searching for a missing college student in the mountains around the Lanape tribe. They keep coming back to find what they might have missed and yet, in the first three hours, don’t think to check the lake (yep, he’s in there).
Red Road has more ambition than it can keep in check – the story of Phillips drug-dealing, drug-using criminal father (played by Tom Sizemore) doesn’t click and Phillip’s relationship with his mother (played by Tamara Tunie) is also needlessly complicated. While the actors do fine work with what they’re given, those storylines just bog down the movement.
If The Red Road had stronger writing, then the series would have been significantly more compelling. It’s exciting to watch Momoa and Henderson give riveting performances, so it’s not like there’s nothing to recommend here. It’s just that in watching them do it, you wish the story was giving them more fodder and not bogging itself down in side arcs.
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