Sundance Channel entered 2013 like a network with something to prove, and did it ever. Making the move into original scripted dramas like sister channel AMC, Sundance gave us three of that year's absolute best shows: the New Zealand mystery miniseries “Top of the Lake,” the meditative life-after-prison series “Rectify” and the creepy supernatural French series “The Returned.” Now, the first of those was an international co-production, and the latter an import that Sundance acquired, but together they sent a message about how serious Sundance was about being great, and quickly, while also laying down a very clear aesthetic for the channel: the TV version of indie cinema. If it wasn't as revolutionary as seeing HBO present “Oz,” “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under” all in a row, it was perhaps the most impressive debut trifecta since then(*).
(*) The only real competition: FX, with “The Shield,” “Nip/Tuck” and “Rescue Me,” and the latter two of those were wildly uneven. We'll see how “Rectify” and “The Returned” do in ensuing seasons.
Though the three shows came from different sources and creative teams, all were of a piece in terms of a very measured pace, gorgeous cinematography, and focus on character and atmosphere over plot. The hero of “Rectify,” for instance spent much of the first season staring at the sky, grass, flip-flops, or anything else that caught his fancy after decades on Death Row, and those scenes were far more satisfying than a more conventional narrative about finding the real killers probably would have been.
All good streaks come to an end, unfortunately, and for Sundance, it concludes with “The Red Road,” the channel's disappointing new series (it debuts tomorrow night at 9). It's an example of how the style Sundance has cultivated to this point can go awry – how slow can just be slow when it's not in service to something more substantial.
Created by Aaron Guzikowski (who wrote last year's Hugh Jackman revenge drama “Prisoners”), the series takes place in a fictional New Jersey town where there's long been tension between the well-to-do white citizenry and their poor counterparts in the Lenape community. Martin Henderson plays Harold Jensen, local cop, father of two teenage girls, and husband to Jean (Julianne Nicholson), the troubled, alcoholic daughter of a powerful politician. Jason Momoa is Phillip Kopus, a half-Lenape crook whose crime spree upon returning to his hometown intersects with various crises in the Jensen family.
On the plus side, the series is a fine showcase for “Game of Thrones” alum Momoa, whose imposing size and distinctive look have at times made him an actor the business doesn't know what to do with. Casting him in this role isn't as incongruous as dropping Khal Drogo into the middle of “The Limey” might be, because Momoa underplays the role as required, speaking softly and recognizing that all he needs to do to be intimidating is to enter a room. He's incredibly charismatic, even when Kopus is just lounging around and watching his enemies sabotage themselves. Momoa's a giant (by Hollywood standards, anyway), which helps, but not all giants have this kind of screen presence.
Henderson (star of “Torque” and Shonda Rhimes' short-lived Doctors Without Borders drama “Off the Map”), though, is his usual blank self. We're meant to see Harold as badly outclassed in his early meetings with Kopus (I've seen four of the six episodes), but the show slackens whenever the story is focusing mainly on the Jensen family. Nicholson, who's turned out to be quite the chameleon of late – as indistinguishable here from recent roles in “Masters of Sex,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “August: Osage County” as those three are from each other – does much better than Henderson at first, but is saddled with a subplot where Jean begins hearing voices. Mental illness is a tricky thing to portray on screen without seeming cheesey; “The Red Road” approach is very cheddar.
Despite employing several interesting directors like James Gray (who did the pilot) and Lodge Kerrigan, there's no real style to the show, and absolutely no urgency. Everything is muted and overcast – like “The Killing,” but without the hilarious frequent downpours – and despite a reasonable amount of incident in these first four episodes, the show meanders along, feeling a bit exciting when Momoa is around to look cocky (or when Tom Sizemore appears as Kopus' erratic gangster mentor), much less so when Henderson is just looking panicked.
With the other Sundance series, very little may be happening in any given stretch, and yet they're so overflowing with emotion that it feels like everything is happening. Here, there are actual significant events (multiple robberies, a hit-and-run, various beatings) quite often, and yet it feels like nothing's happening.
Look, not every show is going to be an instant classic, regardless of how strongly a channel comes out of the gate. (AMC's been struggling to reach the heights of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” with ever show they've given us since.) Had “The Red Road” been the first Sundance original, it might have felt like an interesting experiment, perhaps suggesting more exciting things in the future, even if it was mediocre in a vacuum. But after “Top of the Lake,” “Rectify” and “The Returned,” the bar's now set unfairly high, and mediocre comes out looking a lot worse as a result.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org