TV: Hightown (Season 1)

While generally well done, Hightown is a frustrating contraption, a mix of Nordic noir and throwback cable-network sleaze that spins a compelling story but can’t entirely get out of its own way. Set on Cape Cod, Hightown is a modern crime procedural with a theme: addiction. Jackie Quinones (Monica Raymund) is an agent of the National Marine Fisheries Service, who phones it in by day and parties hard by night in the “lesbian Shangri-La” of Provincetown. Jackie is a half-assed cop who can’t control her appetites for drugs, booze, and women, but she’s destined for a challenge when, after a bender, she finds a dead body on the beach. The discovery coincides with a legal quagmire as her hard-partying lifestyle finally catches up with her. In an effort to turn things around, she goes into rehab and dedicates herself to real investigative work for the first time, convinced solving the murder will fix her life. This embroils her with an effective but corrupt Massachussetts State Police cop, Sergeant Ray Abruzzo (James Badge Dale), whose focus is on shutting down narcotics operations on the Cape. But Ray has his own addictions to battle—namely, a bad habit of sexual involvement with criminal informants, including the dead woman Jackie found on the beach. Working separately, Jackie and Ray pursue the case from different angles, but the deeper they dive into the mystery, the lower they sink in their personal struggles.

Hightown is an elaborate mystery that works its geographic milieu nicely. It’s got the criminal subject matter of a Scandi-noir like Bordertown or Deadwind, featuring tortured heroes whose proximity to death and destruction on the job bleeds inexorably into their personal lives. Its transgressive, gritty edginess—not uncommon in this genre, of course—is spun with a little too much exploitative vim, however. More importantly, the antiheroes have a distinct likability problem. The actors aren’t the issue; Raymund is an attractive, energetic lead, and the ever-underrated Dale is in fine form as usual. But neither can put enough of a shine on their character’s behavior or dialogue to make them truly sympathetic. In an era of TV chock full of protagonists who assay problematic recklessness with accessibility, Hightown is decidedly wanting, its heroes’ selfish compulsions too baked into the scripts for the actors to give them sympathetic nuance. That’s part of the point, of course, on a show about the destructive power of addiction. But it makes that point at the expense of securing viewer investment, keeping the crucial characters just out of reach.

On the plus side, there’s an involved, multifaceted plot driving the action. The supporting characters whose lives are disrupted by the leads—for Jackie her avuncular partner Ed (Mike Pniewski), and for Ray his colleagues Alan (Dohn Norwood) and Leslie (Tonya Glanz)—are quite good, bringing relatable exacerbation to their roles. There’s also fine work from Riley Voekel (in a challenging, thankless role as Ray’s latest CI crush) and Atkins Estimond (as a key dealer and lieutenant on the local drug scene). Finally, when the threads converge, Raymund and Dale display excellent onscreen chemistry, something future seasons will hopefully bank on to rehabilitate their characters. So it’s got plenty going for it, and thematically its heart is in the right place, but the characters’ behavior keeps you at such an arm’s length that ultimately it doesn’t rise above conditional success.

 

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