Say what you will about the British (and after this past summer’s Brexit vote, there is plenty to say), but one area in which our friends across the pond have shown unerring judgment is in the creation of their televised crime dramas.
As fans of “Sherlock,” “Broadchurch,” “The Fall,” “Happy Valley” and “Luther” can attest, the Brits show real flair for putting the dark side of humanity on the small screen. Another program that should be added to that list is the taut and crackling “Top Boy,” the two-season, eight-episode run of which is streaming on Netflix.
“Top Boy,” first released in 2011, applies fine brushwork to its morally compromised characters. Set in the fictional Summerhouse projects in east London, the series centers on two sets of characters: Dushane and Sully, crack dealers looking to jump into the big leagues; and Ra’Nell and Gem, preteen friends caught in the rip currents of the drug trade.
The program announces its intentions with its opening sequence, an extended bird’s-eye tracking shot, colored in dispiriting grays and blues, showing the sprawling size of Summerhouse as its denizens crawl around like ants, and gloomy day transitions into shadowy night. Dushane and Sully – played with aplomb by English rappers Ashley Walters and Kane Robinson – rule this world, but their sovereignty is challenged by interlopers who swoop in and steal their stash. This puts them in debt to their supplier, and to square the ledger, they recruit young kids to move product.
Gem (Giacomo Mancini) agrees to join Dushane and Sully’s crew, but Ra’Nell (Malcolm Kamulete), the more self-possessed of the two, demurs. He’s got bigger things on his mind, including a mother (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) who has been hospitalized for mental illness. However, an unexpected business arrangement with his mother’s pregnant friend (Kierston Wareing) puts the young man at the negotiating table with the two dealers.
Comparisons to David Simon’s long-form masterpiece “The Wire” have been made. This mostly has to do with the milieu, and the relationship between Dushane and Sully. Dushane is cold, controlled, cerebral; Sully is all violent id, and in that way, the pair brings to mind “The Wire’s” Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale.
However, while “The Wire” aspired to chronicle how corruption in powerful institutions (the police, the seaport system, City Hall, public schools, the press) contributed to the rot of Baltimore, “Top Boy” is more contained in its scope and social commentary. Its relentless authenticity is remarkable nonetheless.
Streaming on Netflix