One of the most charming scenes in the new Starz drama series, “Hightown,” takes place at a Movies in the Park screening of “Dirty Dancing,” the mere sight of which may elicit tears from cinephiles currently in quarantine. As Johnny and Baby take part in one of their iconic love duets, a woman seated on the grass turns to her date and quips that this would be a perfect moment, had Patrick Swayze not mimed his dorky air guitar. Whether intentional or not, this line reflects the dilemma facing many of the would-be couples on this show. Their relationship could’ve easily worked out, had it not been for one nagging compulsion that proved to be their downfall.
Executive produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the eight-episode crime saga has all the earmarks of standard summer escapism: sun-dappled locations, attractive leads and a rambunctious horniness. Yet on the periphery of its narrative is the encroaching opioid epidemic destined to spread throughout the protagonists’ deceptively tranquil community, not unlike COVID-19. The perpetually cranky lieutenant of the local narcotics unit (are there any other kind?) refuses to treat fentanyl like a palpable threat until the first documented case of it reaches his shores, just as the shark reached Martha’s Vineyard in “Jaws.” The question, of course, is not if it will happen but when.
I’ll confess that this series is the first I’ve seen from its creator, Rebecca Cutter (“Gotham”), and it’s not one I would’ve normally sought out, since I’ve never developed an appetite for its lurid genre awash in desaturated visuals. Yet “Hightown” managed to win me over in part because it refuses to dilute the inherent vibrance of its setting in Provincetown, Cape Cod, featuring a smorgasbord of townies and tourists as colorful as the Pride Flags lining their streets. The first two episodes are among the first directorial efforts of Rachel Morrison, the brilliant cinematographer of “Black Panther” and “Mudbound,” and they left me even more enticed for her upcoming feature filmmaking debut, the Claressa Shields biopic “Flint Strong” penned by Barry Jenkins.
There are echoes of Wakanda’s unabashed beauty in several early scenes chronicling the town’s annual Carnival festivities, and Morrison also makes fine use of a ground-level camera as it caresses the beach in a dreamlike trance. She is masterful at guiding the viewer’s eye, particularly when honing in on details that would otherwise go unnoticed, such as a face hidden in a field or pinned to a crowded bulletin board. In both cases, the face belongs to Krista Collins (Crystal Lake Evans), a recovering addict who sees her friend get murdered by an imposingly large gangster, Osito (Atkins Estimond), in the very first scene, a jarring and brutal act of violence that isn’t lingered on for the purposes of sensationalism.
Through some remarkably artful editing, Krista’s arc of remission and relapse parallels that of our central heroine, Jackie Quiñones (long-time “Chicago Fire” star Monica Raymund), a federal Fishery Service Agent whose penchant for drinking and partying lands her in AA. When she approaches a college-age girl in a bar, she isn’t planning to card her—she simply wants to get laid. Though the show’s theatrically staged sex scenes had me pining for the natural light and low-key intimacy of “Normal People,” the blaring soundtrack does effectively mirror the walls our main characters have built up that sever them from their most desired human connection. Jackie’s endless parade of one night stands temporarily distract her from the heartbreak of her failed relationship to an ex disillusioned by her broken promises.
She suffers from the same White Knight syndrome as narcotics detective Ray Abruzzo (a superb James Badge Dale), who is guilty of falling for informants like Renee (Riley Voelkel), wife of the evil drug kingpin he put behind bars, Frankie Cuevas (Amaury Nolasco). Ray’s story is a cautionary one for the #MeToo era, as his abuse of power threatens to undermine his righteous crusade, even as he and Renee begin to develop real feelings for one another. The extent to which he and Jackie treat others as sexual objects to be consumed reflects the sociopathic mindset that Osito intends on giving his “solder-in-training,” Junior (Shane Harper), encouraging him to rough up a rude fast food clerk while getting high off the rush.
The best episode of “Hightown”’s inaugural season is its fifth, helmed by “The Wire” DP Eagle Egilsson, which vividly portrays the repetitious nature of an addict’s life. Triumph proves to be well within the reach of our characters just before it slips out of their grasp, swiftly derailing anticipated plot turns and thrusting the narrative into even darker waters. It’s here where Osito transcends the Big Scary Black Man stereotype that I feared would confine him, as he reveals his own buried humanity, recounting how he’s been able to live with the horrific acts that Frankie assigned him to carry out. “Nightmares let you know that you’re not a psycho,” he assures Junior, who is visibly shaken by their latest kill.
With every episode, Estimond adds new fascinating layers to his character, shedding light on the code he honors which separates him from animalistic henchmen such as Kizzle (white-haired Edmund Donovan, camping it up). He also sports a surprising sense of humor, earning laughs when you least expect them. In fact, I found myself laughing quite a bit during these episodes, though I’m not entirely certain whether some of the hokier dialogue and other assorted contrivances were meant to be funny. The lap dances Renee gives at her strip club veer into sudden interrogations so often that it becomes a running gag. I also liked when Jackie argued with her fed-up landlord, reminding him that she took his cat to the vet, only for him to retort, “That’s because you forgot its kidney medication!”
Thankfully, when the show needs to be deadly serious, it is to often riveting effect, grounding its yarn of corruption in the tragedy and lack of closure that its subject matter demands. What prevents “Hightown” from devolving into a drag is the enormous appeal of its leading lady, Raymund, who doesn’t shy away from flashing smiles of exhilaration when she finds herself capable of being the hero after all. Like Lilly Rush, the sole female detective at the homicide squad in Bruckheimer’s hit show “Cold Case,” Jackie is the “only person of color in the northeast division,” a status that would otherwise deem her an outsider, yet her colleagues view her as one of the guys. She doesn’t even bat an eye when one of them makes a flippant pass at her, quipping that he’s “barking up the wrong lesbian.”
Perhaps the most meaningful moment of all is among the quieter ones, as Jackie calms a potential witness that Ray had threatened to turn over to ICE officials. Rather than coldly exploit his immigrant status to retrieve the information she needs, Jackie speaks to him in his native tongue, drawing upon their shared background to forge a connection. This small yet impactful moment affirms why diversity is so crucial, both on television and the world it strives to portray.
Whole season screened for review.