In Its Final Season, Netflix’s Top Boy Is Still the Best Crime Show You’ve Never SeenPhoto Courtesy of Netflix TV Reviews Netflix
Everybody has a show like this—the one you tell all your friends about, but almost nobody listens. I’ve been the one who politely nods plenty of times, but when it comes to Top Boy, the British crime drama whose fifth* and final season airs on Netflix starting this Thursday, I’m the one who won’t shut up. My previous attempts to write it up on this site have included headlines phrases like “deserves more attention” and “far more than just the British Wire.” I have frankly done about all I can do, and have probably long-passed the threshold between “passionate fan” and “annoying.” And yet, here I am again.
(*Top Boy has had an interesting history, with two short series running in 2011 and 2013 before it went away for six full years, only for a group that included the rapper Drake to revive it, leading to three more series in 2019, 2022, and now. So while this is the fifth season by my reckoning, Netflix calls it the third season and labels the first two seasons as a different program called Top Boy: Summerhouse. My obvious recommendation is to start in 2011, with the latter series, if you’re coming in fresh.)
There is so much to say about Top Boy, from its incredible Caribbean-infused British street patois to its complex, flawed characters, to its excellent plotting to its well cultivated rap soundtrack (that sounds a million times more interesting and socially conscious to my untrained ears than anything I’ve ever heard on the radio) to, perhaps above all, its keen sense of the small tragedies of modern poverty. (The show is set in the high rises of London, with a predominantly Black and poor population, where the only time the government seems to pay attention to the citizens is when they want to deport or gentrify them.) It’s the kind of story where you come for the ongoing Shakespearean saga of Sully (Kane Robinson) and DuShane (Ashley Walters), kingpins who are best friends and worst enemies at once, and you stay because it has a thousand and one ways to break your heart—many of them involving children who are too young to be thrust into the cruelty of this particular world, but have very little choice in the matter.
The show was conceived and written by Ronan Bennett, an Irish writer who spent time in prison in his youth on charges related to the Irish Republican Army, and was inspired to create Top Boy when he saw a 12-year-old dealing drugs at his local grocery store. Unlike The Wire, Top Boy focuses predominantly on the dealers and users, with the police making cameo appearances at most. It can be fast-paced and brutal, but it can also be meditative, and it maintains a sense of exuberance and hope without ever shying away from the element of despair surrounding its principal characters and their environment.
In the fifth and final season, just six episodes long, that social focus is maintained even as the concluding chapter of the kingpins races to its last conclusion. The four episodes made available to critics reveal a show that has maintained its vitality, but also seems to be exiting at the proper time—you can just sense the shadow reality of how it could become redundant, but without ever experiencing the decline. This, of course, is often what separates British drama from American drama; the willingness to write short seasons when necessary, and the willingness to get out while the getting’s good.
The stories of this season feel like a proper denouement, perhaps not the most bracing of the Top Boy series, but of the same soul, and just as watchable as ever. The trick of creating sympathetic villains without glorifying them or romanticizing their milieu is once again on fine display, and though you lose yourself in the story, it’s impossible to ignore how so many other shows fail where they succeed. Without every element—writing, acting, directing—working in concert, there’s no way this highwire act could be so successful for so long, and there’s comfort knowing they managed to reach the finish line without sacrificing the vision that has defined the entire show.
There’s no use whining about how obscure the show remains in America, despite its popularity in the UK; people will watch what they’ll watch, and it’s seemingly so far off the radar here that the persuasion game might be something of a lost cause. Nevertheless, if there’s anyone out there who loves crime dramas with irresistible characters, a feeling of intense authenticity, and more heart than 99% of shows in the TV landscape, you will not regret starting this journey. There are times when it provides the same thrill as learning a new language, and others when it captures the human condition with painful familiarity, but through five seasons, Top Boy has rarely taken a wrong step. The only risk you take here is becoming like me—a hopeless evangelist who knows the futility of his cause, but is so taken with the quality of this singular show in its sunset moment that I can’t stop shouting into the void.
All episodes of Top Boy are now streaming on Netflix.
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