2011, 2013, 2019, 2022, 2023, TV

Top Boy (2011)

This British crime drama about drug deals in London was on Channel 4 for two seasons back in the early teens and then revived for Netflix in the last half decade. That’s relevant because of something that happened to me while I tried to watch it. But I’ll get to that in a second. It’s one of a number of contemporary shows about criminals that feels “realistic” due to location shooting and good performances by the cast, who mostly feel like real people. But, like so many of these shows, it’s hard to believe a lot of it.

So first off: if you are going to watch this show via Netflix, be sure to start with Top Boy: Summerhouse rather than Top Boy. For reasons that escape me, the first two seasons (series as the British say) have a colon and subtitle as if they are the sequel. I was watching the third season thinking “This show looks incredible for 2011.” A few episodes in, I looked up the cast on Wikipedia and realized I was watching the third season, not the first. I understand a little bit of research might have prevented this mistake but I don’t like knowing much about what I watch ahead of time. So I watched four episodes (4!) of season 3 before I figured it out. There aren’t massive spoilers exactly, but there are enough that it probably affected how I enjoyed the first two seasons. Here I was thinking there was just this really elaborate backstory that they were doing a good job of not explaining too much but no. Anyway…

The first season is mostly pretty compelling. There’s a good sense of place and most people feel like real people. I do think the cast does an excellent job and that’s one reason the show gets such good reviews. I also do think that the story is bent on subverting clichés and often does a good job of this. We the audience often expect the plot to go one way and it goes another. The show isn’t concerned with expanding the universe to include people who might not be around much and doesn’t over explain this stuff. Lesser shows would absolutely have characters we already know do things that don’t make sense or spend too much time explaining who a minor character is because the show doesn’t trust the audience.

But it does feel that sometimes the characters behave in service of the plot. Also, a few moments in the first season kind of beggar belief, particularly as the season goes on. Sometimes we’re not sure why Dushane and Sully get the breaks they get.

And this only gets worse in the second season, where it just feels like certain characters do certain things in service of the plot. Also, certain characters in the second season – cough Lisa cough – seem like completely different people. Oh and Dushane’s relationship with the lawyer feels pulled from The Wire, feels completely off and just doesn’t work. That being said, I will say the lack of closure in the second season is rather impressive. It’s the highlight of what is otherwise very clearly a step down in terms of the qualify of the show.

It’s weird for me to talk about the third season because I watched the first half before I watched seasons 1 and 2, and then I watched the rest of it. But I will say it got me into the world of the show, and I found it compelling enough to commit to the show, even after I realized my mistake. I do think it tries to tell too many stories, something I’m not sure you can say for the first two seasons.

I actually wonder if I would have liked season 3 more if I never watched the first two seasons. There is a sense of deja vu with way too much of an expansion of the world of the first two seasons. There’s more show here and I’m not always 100% convinced it’s a good thing.

I see The Wire thrown around as a comparator, as well as some shows I’ve never seen, and all I can say is “just because a show involves drug dealers doesn’t mean it’s like The Wire, you guys.” This show has virtually none of the ambition of The Wire but, far more importantly, it doesn’t really have any of the social comment. If I had to compare this show to a “prestige” American drama of recent vintage, Boardwalk Empire is a much closer comp: it’s a show about criminals that depicts their lives – whether or not it condones is another story – and doesn’t really have anything else to say. That’s fine, so far as it goes, but it’s not on the same level as any show that has something to say about society, not just characters.

I have no real issues with this show, really. It’s competently made, I think the acting is good, I think the plotting is…fine. But there are so many shows that I mean to watch and I’m not sure I can justify watching 14 episodes more of this show.


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