Anyone who saw “Rectify,” Sundance Channel’s first wholly owned original scripted series, knows that the network has a good handle on how to do dark and deliberate drama.
“The Red Road,” which premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. for a six-episode run, may not be in quite the same class as its predecessor, but a strong cast and finely wrought tone of dread and potential combustibility make it a promising second act for the network. (“Rectify” returns for a second season this summer.)
The series orbits Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson, “Off the Map”), a New Jersey cop trying to keep the peace between the residents of the small town where he grew up and a neighboring Native American tribe in the Ramapo mountains.
That peacekeeping mission does not extend to his own home, where his troubled wife, Jean (Julianne Nicholson, “August: Osage County”), and to a lesser extent he himself, oppose their daughter Rachel (Allie Gonino, “The Lying Game”) pursuing a relationship with Junior (Kiowa Gordon, the “Twilight” franchise), a member of the Lenape tribe.
Jensen’s complicated family life coincides with his police work when a college student disappears.
The murky circumstances of the investigation are well-matched to the look of the show, which feels simultaneously expansive, with woods and mountains, and constricting, including the authentically dingy domiciles of some of the less fortunate citizens. Part of the series’ appeal, at least in the early going, is the friction between the haves and have-nots and the many ways this tension manifests itself. The story also moves slowly, mirroring the way small towns can sometimes feel, even when they are as close to New York City as this one.
The show’s biggest asset, literally and figuratively, is Jason Momoa. Is there anyone on television as capable of combining such formidable menace and sex appeal as the former Khal Drogo from “Game of Thrones”? One minute he can glower with what one could imagine are physical consequences and the next he can be a smiling, gentle giant, ready for a belly laugh.
There are not many laughs to be had for Momoa on “The Red Road,” however.
He costars as Phillip Kopus, a member of the Native American tribe and ex-con who still may be working the wrong side of the law, thanks to his shady, drug-dealing dad, played with sweaty, fidgety, verisimilitude by Tom Sizemore. Kopus’s return coincides with the investigation, and a link between him and Jean further complicates an already fragile situation. Lisa Bonet, Momoa’s real-life wife, shows up in the third episode and adds a new wrinkle to the proceedings.
In addition to Momoa, Henderson convinces as a man who once likely thought he knew what his life would look like and is now just barely holding it all together, sometimes in ways that work against his better judgement.
Nicholson, so icily still and spiky on Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” makes an impressive about face to portray Jean, a woman whose problems run deeper than the alcoholism to which she has confessed. Without chewing scenery, Nicholson brings Jean’s frailties right to the surface before letting them spill out in disastrous fashion.
The star-crossed teen lovers story line is well-worn territory but Gonino and Gordon do a good job of playing to the frantic nature of adolescent attraction. Gonino does especially well locating that place where teen bravado breaks down into child-like panic in scenes when Momoa is at his most fearsome.
“The Red Road,” created by Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband,” “Prisoners”) and produced by Sarah Condon (“Bored to Death”), will likely be a little too downbeat and leisurely for some viewers. But based on the first few episodes, it may be a path worth traveling down.