Netflix's Top Boy Stages a Satisfying, Gut-Wrenching Season 2, and Deserves More Attention

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Netflix's <i>Top Boy</i> Stages a Satisfying, Gut-Wrenching Season 2, and Deserves More Attention

Top Boy has done it again. I recently found myself up at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m., unable to sleep, having made the unhealthy decision to see out the end of the Netflix series’ second season. At that point, there was no going back, and self-discipline had deserted me. The critical moment had actually come hours earlier, around midnight, when I could have opted to close Netflix, avoid getting into the second half of the eight-episode season, and thus saved myself from getting swept away by the show’s momentum. But by 1 a.m., I was committed, and all I could do was watch the clock and lament the math—I wasn’t getting out of there before 4:30, and it would spoil my entire day. Too bad, though, because by that point, a sturdy rope, a winch, and seven burly men couldn’t sever me from my laptop.

The same thing happened during the first season.* The same inability to check myself at a reasonable hour. The same frightening realization that I’d be up until 5 a.m. The same helplessness in the face of the story. And whatever else I say about Top Boy, that’s what matters most: it’s so excellent, in so many ways, that you have trouble looking away.

(*A quick note on Top Boy: The first two seasons, which were four episodes each, ran in 2011 and 2013 before the show was canceled by Channel 4 in the U.K. It was revived by Netflix in 2019, partly due to the intervention of Drake, a massive fan, and eventually returned with a third season of 10 episodes, followed by this most recent season of eight episodes. Those first two mini-seasons (which are terrific in their own right) are now referred to as Top Boy: Summerhouse. So when I say second season, it refers to the eight-episode season that debuted in 2022, although you could technically call it Season 4. And now, breathe deeply.)

The glib way to describe Top Boy is that it’s The Wire, but British. As I wrote in my review of Season 1, that’s hugely reductive, but here are the surface similarities: Drug dealers, many of them Black, in a major urban center, with an exploration of hierarchies and strategies; irresistible dialogue (much of it in slang that starts off sounding inscrutable but soon becomes second nature); and the constant fight to stay ahead of poverty and the police. But where The Wire was part procedural, here the focus is very rarely on the cops, but on the roadmen themselves—the ones trying to make it on the streets.

Sully (Kano) and DuShane (Ashley Walters) have always been the combustible intertwined centerpieces, full of love and hate and loyalty and suspicion for the other, and they both return as aggrieved and complicated as ever. DuShane has an undiagnosed heart problem now, aggravated by the triple stresses of his mother dying, his drugs getting confiscated, and the ever-present police nipping at his tail. Sully has moved to a houseboat, seeking simplicity in the aftermath of losing contact with his daughter, but he’s dragged back into the mess when a charismatic, dangerous niece thrusts him into the center of a gang conflict.

Meanwhile, DuShane’s maybe-protege Jamie (Michael Ward) is out of jail, but his brothers are distant, clearly resenting what he put them through. His best friend Kit (Kadeem Ramsay) is also acting strange. He can’t stop thinking about how to undermine and overthrow DuShane, such is his obsession with becoming top boy.

These three main ingredients produce another scintillating season, and it works phenomenally even before a twist ending that leaves you gasping. Even the side stories, which run the risk of being buzzkills, are full of energy. Lauryn (Saffron Hocking), the sister of one of DuShane’s top lieutenants, is pregnant in Liverpool and trying to escape an abusive husband (played by the unbelievably unsettling Howard Charles in a masterful bit of acting). Each time we focus on her story, it takes time away from the East London drama. But we don’t mind a bit. Same when the focus turns to the redevelopment of Summerhouse, which is about to destroy what remains of the community so outside investors can get rich. It all works.

The praise I can offer is the same as I’ve offered before: the intelligent, realistic story, the beautiful patois, the darkness, the redemption. After each episode, I’m left wondering why it’s not a bigger show in America; had it been made here, with American actors (or, let’s be honest, British actors pretending to be American), I have a feeling it would already be as big as The Wire. I wonder the same thing about Santan Dave, a rapper I discovered through Top Boy, who has to be on the world’s best, is enormous in the U.K., but is still rarely known by casual fans in America. There seems to be an unwritten rule that British TV will only cross over successfully if it’s A) a good comedy, B) about queens and duchesses and earls, C) a crime show, but one in which the cops and detectives are the protagonists, or D) a game show that we’ll steal.

How a show like Top Boy missed that boat is a mystery to me. And while there are other “greatest shows you don’t know about” that I’ve written about (see: Gomorrah), it’s at least understandable when the shows in question are in a language other than English. Not so for Top Boy. And yet what most critics who take the time to watch consider a superb show is still an afterthought in the U.S.

It shouldn’t be. Ronan Bennett, the show’s writer, has taken pains over a decade to draw out fully fleshed human beings existing inside a meat grinder milieu. In doing so, he’s never abdicated either his social responsibility or his duty to a compelling story. The casting has yielded superlative performances, the direction is appropriately dark yet punctuated with moments of whimsy to remind you just how heartbreaking the darkness is, and while humanity may not win out often, it always gets its say. Top Boy is an ongoing masterpiece, the kind of show that will make your day and ruin your whole night.

Top Boy Season 2 is streaming on Netflix.

Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .

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