Julianne Nicholson stars in the Sundance Channel original series 'The Red Road.' (James Minchin / Sundance Channel)
Some shows are elevated by chemistry, some find magic in the mundane, some create a new world, others delve deep into human relationships.
“The Red Road” offers none of these things. Essentially a criminal soap opera, it turns completely on a clumsy and unlikely bit of blackmail. As a six-episode project, you’d expect precision, compactness and speed; instead it basically, at least for the first four episodes, wanders toward the inevitable.
Martin Henderson stars as Harold Jensen, a cop in a New Jersey town that borders a Native American community. As the series begins, authorities are searching for a missing “college kid,” who is referred to as “college kid” throughout the series, as if the term was equivalent to “extraterrestrial.” Geez, this is New Jersey, not New Guinea; college kids can’t be that rare.
Harold is married to Jean (Julianne Nicholson, so fine in “August: Osage County”). They have two daughters, angelic Kate (Annalise Basso) and rebellious Rachel (Allie Gonino). Rachel is dating a Native American boy named Junior (Kiowa Gordon), a fact that drives Jean mad (which is a short drive).
Returning to his hometown is ex-con Phillip Kopus (the substantial Jason Momoa), who turns out to be the true son of Junior’s adoptive mother, Marie (Tamara Tunie). Phillip may as well be carrying a sign that reads, “Bad Guy.”
Also in the mix is Phillip’s sleazy father (Detroit native Tom Sizemore) in New York City, Phillip’s weak sidekick Mike (Zahn McClarnon) and assorted minor characters to come.
In the opening episode, a drunk Jean, who’s incensed by Rachel’s relationship with Junior, blasts drunkenly down a country road at night, making a wrong turn that will ultimately put Harold in debt to Phillip. The balance of the story sees Harold getting ever more tangled in the web of deceit he’s woven to protect Jean.
And that’s about it. There’s a (very) slow-reveal backstory involving Phillip and Jean and her long-dead brother, and some Native American politics thrown about, but mainly this is a straight-up blackmail story.
Junior immediately adopts Phillip as a role model, but despite Momoa’s natural heat, the guy doesn’t come off as all that imposing, just as Harold doesn’t come off as all that bright.
The odd thing here is that this series is created by Aaron Guzikowski, who recently wrote the intriguing film “Prisoners,” which was both layered and immediately captivating. “The Red Road,” in contrast, feels too well-traveled.
'The Red Road'
9 p.m. Thursday