February 26, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “The Red Road”


THE RED ROAD:  Thursday 9PM on Sundance Channel – If Nothing Else Is On…

“Ponderousness” is odd branding for a cable network with fledgling original programming to embrace, but after Top of the Lake, Rectify, The Returned and the new THE RED ROAD, it’s pretty clear that Sundance Channel is very comfortable with its shows having–let’s call it a measured pace.  That’s not to say that the dramas aren’t worthy–the sinuous slowness of The Returned only increased its creepiness factor–just that a Scandal fan might feel the need to multi-task while a Sundance show is airing.

The network’s latest offering is set against the backdrop of the uneasy relationship between Native American tribes and the local law, a theme that’s also come up recently on Big Love, The Killing, Banshee and Longmire.  Unlike all those shows, though, Red Road doesn’t focus on the comparatively glamorous world of tribal-owned casino gambling.  It’s set in the rural community of Walpole in the mountainous part of New Jersey, where what we see of the Lanape tribe is barely scraping by.  (This area also played a role in the recent Out of the Furnace.)  The series, created by Aaron Guzikowski, who wrote the script for last year’s fine film Prisoners, also confounds expectations with its storyline.  Although its protagonists are police deputy Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson) and Indian drug dealer Philip Kopus (Jason Momoa, probably forever to be best known for Game of Thrones), and there’s a murder and a near-murder in the first hour, Red Road isn’t a whodunit.  Rather, it’s a soap that takes itself very seriously.

The men are the stars of Red Road, but its women drive the action.  Harold’s wife Jean (Julianne Nicholson) has a history with Kopus that goes back to when all three of them were in high school together; she’s an alcoholic trying to stay sober, and the implication is that the terrible thing that happened back in those days helped drive her to drink.  Now Harold and Jean’s daughter Rachel (Allie Gonino) is dating Junior (Kiowa Gordon), who’s been taken in by Kopus’s mother Marie (Tamara Tunie), and seeing her daughter dating an Indian sends Jean off the rails.  When, in pursuit of Rachel, she drunkenly hits-and-runs an Indian boy, the knowledge of her guilt gives Kopus leverage over Harold.

As with the other Sundance Channel offerings, the acting in Red Road is excellent.  Nicholson has been playing strait-laced characters in Boardwalk Empire, Masters of Sex and August: Osage County, and Jean’s fury and terror give her license to stretch muscles of her talent that have been under wraps.  Tunie is almost unrecognizable from her years standing over an autopsy table on Law & Order, and Momoa has all the charisma he’d shown as a Dothraki.

But much here is familiar:  the rebellious teen daughter who causes trouble with her Romeo & Juliet relationship, the menacing drug traffickers (Tom Sizemore shows up as Kopus’s father) with their ever-present threat of violence, the good lawman who has to make moral compromises.  The first hour doesn’t introduce any elements to set Red Road apart beyond its setting, although it’s a mercy that the show lacks the moral pretentiousness that marked parts of Top of the Lake and Rectify.  Director James Gray has impeccable indie credentials (The Yards, Two Lovers, Little Odessa), but his films aren’t exactly speed demons either, and playing this material with the accent entirely on somberness exposes it as pulp that isn’t much fun.

There are 5 more hours of The Red Road to come, and perhaps more layers of storytelling will unfold.  For now, Sundance Channel seems to have an all-too-fitting addition to its canon, one that is undeniably building a clear picture of what the network intends itself to be.  Perhaps for a programmer trying to show itself as different from the seemingly endless number of other platforms for original drama these days, a body of work that regards itself as more revelatory than it actually is is as good as any.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."