Saturday, March 1, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: The Red Road

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Thursdays at 9:00 PM on The Sundance Channel

When AMC entered the television programming game in 2007 with Mad Men and followed it up a few months later with Breaking Bad in 2008, it caused a rumble that made everybody perk up and take notice.  Here was this network that previously only showed movies all day, coming out of the gate with two of the best dramas on television.  People were ready to declare them the second coming of HBO.  Then they picked up and aired Rubicon, which was an excellent little paranoid thriller, but its cancellation tarnished AMC's previously clean record.  The true sign that the network wasn't so much the golden child after all was The Walking Dead and The Killing, two shows that started with a great pilot, but dipped in quality soon after that (though to be fair, The Walking Dead is an unqualified success in terms of ratings).  Now with shows like Comic Book Men, Low Winter Sun, and Hell On Wheels, it's clear that AMC is just another network and not the destroyer of worlds it was prophesied to be.

Could the same thing be happening with The Sundance Channel?  It had a remarkable coming out party last year, debuting shows like The Returned, Top of the Lake, and Rectify; all three of which ended up on my top 20 list at the end of 2013.  Is The Red Road, Sundance's first new program of 2014, as good as those three after its first episode?  Far from it.  The pilot throws us right into the show's story, which centers around the simmering tensions between a community where whites and Native Americans live adjacent to each other.  The problem is that this interesting setup feels very murky so far.  Usually it's a good thing when a show doesn't feel the need to hold your hand, but we could've benefited from a bit of that.  As it stands, the first episode feels far too needlessly opaque.  It's almost as if we've been dropped into the middle of the season, and without any real context, characters' actions and concerns just feel silly.

Yet something about the show really hooked me and left me with the desire to see where it goes moving forward.  For one, it's got Jason Mamoa, who was merely a towering presence on Game of Thrones, but gets to show that he's got some menace and charisma here.  Plus, it's got a decent sense of atmosphere and moves pretty well compared to the network's other shows.  Though things may be unclear now, they've at least got a solid foundation, one that could allow the writers to tap into the long history and deep-rooted animosities that exist in this community.  Sundance's hot streak will eventually be broken, but we're going to need a few more episodes of The Red Road to see if this is the one that ends it.

Grade: C+

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