It might sound unfair, but many times it is tempting to judge a show based on what aired on that network before it. A show like Low Winter Sun already had unreal expectations to meet, airing on the same network that brought you Mad Men and Breaking Bad, regardless of the fact that it was pretty terrible. Shows on HBO and Netflix now gain interest solely because of the network they air on. Last year, Sundance became one of the networks known for great programming, airing Rectify, their first scripted series, and acquiring the rights to air Top of the Lake and The Returned. To put it simply, 2013 was the year Sundance became a real player in the television game.
That’s quite a burden to put on The Red Road, Sundance’s second scripted series after Rectify, and frankly, Sundance’s first disappointment. The Red Road comes off like a watered down Sundance series, hitting many of the same notes as previous shows (also a little bit of The Bridge and The Killing), all while unnecessarily dumbing things down for the audience.
The pilot episode, “Arise My Love, Shake Off This Dream,” seems to throw in as many different plots as possible as fast as it can. Jason Momoa—probably best known as Khal Drago from Game of Thrones—plays Phillip, an ex-con and member of the Ramapo Indian tribe, who is newly back home and has just been involved with the murder of a rich teenager. On the other end of this spectrum is Martin Henderson’s Harold, a cop who is trying to solve the murder of the teenager, while also dealing with his alcoholic wife, and his daughter running off with Phillip’s step-brother.
But the interactions between these two don’t stop there. Jean, Harold’s wife, had a brother who died after a Ramapo Indian gave him drugs and watched him drown. It’s no surprise when it turns out this Indian was Phillip, even if the show wants it to come off as some revelation. When Jean and Harold’s daughter Rachel runs away with Phillip’s step-brother, Junior, a seemingly drunk Jean drives to Junior’s house to try and find him and her daughter. On the way back home, she hits something and drives off. Later that night, Phillip sets up a meeting with Harold, where Phillip says the two of them should work together. It looks like Jean might have hit a child, and with Phillip and the tribe’s help, Jean could walk away innocent.
If this sounds like far too many connections and plot for the first episode, it is, not to mention it all pretends to be much smarter that it actually is. It’s easy to see plot twists coming from a mile away, and the way the show accentuates certain points can get frustrating. When Jean steals a gun from her husband, the show feels the need to zoom in on his empty holster twice, just in case you didn’t get the message. All it really needs is a “Dum, da, DAAAA!” on the score to point out this twist.
What is actually surprising is that the team behind the camera hasn’t created a more solid product. The Red Road is created by Aaron Guzikowski, who wrote last year’s underrated Prisoners, and the pilot episode is directed by Two Lovers’ James Gray. Both know how to build fantastic amounts of tension between family issues, often between conflicting families, but through a much slower process. However The Red Road throws so much in right away, that instead of letting things build, it already feels like it’s flying down the mountain.
Granted, it’s too early to tell if The Red Road is actually attempting too much and to condemn it for not building tension effectively, but after the first episode it just feels like an amalgamation of ideas done better by other shows.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.