TV review: Top Boy, Channel 4 - Everybody loses on the Summerhouse Estate
Ray Donovan, Sky Atlantic
Wednesday 11 September 2013
If there was a message to be learnt from the heartbreaking finale to Top Boy, it was that on the Summerhouse Estate, everybody loses. Despite critics' concerns about the glorification of violence, this is a show with no interest in sugar-coating gangland life and thus the best thing you could say about its bleak, brilliant conclusion was that at least Sully attempted to save grubby, overlooked Jason – although even that was tempered by the fact that he'll probably train him to kill people over the course of time.
Elsewhere, it was business as normal, as long as your business involves double-crossing Albanian gangsters, lying to lawyers, intimidating witnesses, dealing drugs and trying to stay both one step ahead of the law and, more simply, alive. It was all pretty tense stuff, especially for poor Michael, who spent most of the episode holed up playing computer games while Dushane and Dris went about their business elsewhere, casually debating whether he deserved to live.
As those scenes, with their combination of fear and fatalism, demonstrated, Top Boy's real power lies not in the gangs and guns, but in its examination of relationships and the many ways, both big and small, in which we fail those who trust us. That's not to say the various crime plots weren't central to the storyline this season, but Ronan Bennett's astute, confident scripts have been as adept in the smaller moments as in the violent showdowns, as concerned with what isn't being said as with what is, cleverly peeling back the layers of bravado to show the bluff within.
He is helped in this by an outstanding cast, from charismatic leading men Ashley Walters and Kane Robinson, who made you care for Dushane and Sully despite the evil that they do, to the remarkable younger actors, in particular the wide-eyed Michael and hapless best friends, Ra'Nell and Gem.
Thus, the best moments of last night were often the quietest: Lisa's look of despair as she realised which particular devil she was going to have to deal with; Kayla's joy and fear on seeing her son; Sully's hand reaching down for Jason; and the hurt on Dushane's face when he realised that he might be Top Boy, but he can't wish back his best friend.
Best of all though was the scene where Gem said goodbye to Ra'Nell, his feet scuffing the concrete as he talked of Ramsgate and visits while his best friend, seemingly uninterested, played football, never looking up. The silence that followed contained a world of hurt and pain and betrayal, from Ra'Nell's feeling of abandonment to Gem's unspoken thanks for all his friend had tried to do. It was a moment that wonderfully captured the friendship between adolescent boys, in which so much important goes unsaid, while also laying bare the narrow boundaries of both boys' world – a world in which Ramsgate is not so much a seaside town as a universe far, far away.
Similar issues were explored, albeit in a very different way, in Sky Atlantic's Hollywood crime drama Ray Donovan. We're three quarters of the way through the first season and so far this is a show that isn't quite in the top pantheon. All the ingredients are present: a great cast including Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight and James Woods, a clever scenario pitting Boston sensibilities against Hollywood superficiality and some sharp writing; but somehow it hasn't quite clicked.
That said, last night's episode was one of the strongest yet as Woods's terrifying crook hit the road to LA, Ray dealt with a blackmailing paparazzo and Mickey took a risky route to prove that maybe his family really does come first. It was tightly written, entertaining and explosive: here's hoping for more of the same.
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