We have Drake to thank for Top Boy’s return. The show was cancelled by Channel 4 in 2013, but the rapper was enough of a fan to buy the rights and strike a deal with Netflix for a 10-episode series that aired in 2019. Thankfully, the injection of Hollywood backing didn’t mean that the show lost its assured point of view. It was still confident, still compelling and refused to translate itself for its global audience: you either “got it”, or you got left behind. And it only takes about half an episode of Top Boy’s second Netflix season to secure its place as one of the streamer’s best shows.
Top Boy’s central story revolves around drug dealers in East London as they battle to remain at the pinnacle of trade across the city. Season two starts with Jamie (Micheal Ward) coming out of prison after new evidence forces the judge to reconsider his sentence. Araloyin Oshunremi gives an early standout performance as Stefan, the youngest of Jamie’s two brothers. Jamie was expecting to find the lively boy he left behind months before, but Stefan has hardened. He’s struggled since Jamie was locked up – not only because he’s missed his brother, but because his best friend Ats was partly responsible for putting him there.
It’s particularly heartbreaking to watch the younger characters amid such grim circumstances. Though there are moments of joy and lightness, we can see how easily they can get caught up in harmful activities that’ll irreparably change their lives. Reviewers have been asked not to reveal too many specifics about what happens in the season, but early on, a smiling Dushane (Ashley Walters) tells Jamie that, after a successful six months of no murders or stabbings in the area, “things can only get better”. There’s no clearer sign that things are about to do the exact opposite.
When portraying the lives of Black Londoners deep in the drug trade, it’s essential to do so from a place that feels grounded in reality. Without it, the programme would run the risk of simply regurgitating offensive stereotypes and selling itself short. Top Boy escapes this, though: these characters feel rooted and created with care. Though there are many storylines to keep track of, they each feel necessary to make the tapestry of the characters’ lives feel full and genuine. Jaq (Jasmine Jobson) is not only Dushane’s fearsome second-in-command – she has her own issues to navigate, including the start of a new romance and supporting her pregnant sister, who’s stuck in Liverpool in an abusive relationship. Sully (Kane “Kano” Robinson) has turned away from a life of crime and is living a wholesome life on a canal boat. Or, trying to at least. The guilt of killing an old friend follows him, making this new start a fraught one.
It’s not all rival gangs and overseas drug shipments – the writing of this show ensures these characters are much more than the ways they make money. Watch out for a scene where Jamie gives in to his surroundings and plays football on a Moroccan beach with homeless children. It’s utterly moving.
It is violent, with some intense scenes that can stick with you, even episodes after watching. Still, Top Boy is a distinct example of when great writing meets great acting; overlook it at your own peril.
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