On the surface, Top Boy is a very straight forward story about two drug dealers trying to navigate the murky underbelly of London. When you dive a little deeper however, Top Boy is a fascinating social commentary on the issues facing Britain’s youth and just how seductive the drug trade can be. It’s incredibly realistic too, with a good use of colloqualistic language and a surprising amount of accuracy with the way it presents its ideas. Given I used to see this firsthand back in my youth, Top Boy doesn’t shy away from some of the shady areas of this trade which certainly helps the show’s credibility.
The story revolves around two hungry drug dealers, Sully and Dushane, who enter into a lucrative deal with Cockney drug boss Raikes. When their stash is stolen, the two boys find themselves in a race against time as they try to find who took their drugs whilst figuring out who in their organisation has ratted them out in the first place. All of this builds toward the last two episodes that see all of our supporting and main cast come together for a final clash. In the aftermath of this drama, plot points are resolved and characters are given a good send-off, while leaving the door wide open for a second season.
Along with this main story arc, Top Boy plays with two separate storylines that run parallel to the main conflict. With a baby on the way, single mother Heather takes a gamble and decides to grow a marijuana farm in her flat to raise funds to pay for her baby. Meanwhile, Ra’Nell deals with his Mum being taken into care and forced to stay on the straight and narrow by his new guardian Leon. What’s particularly impressive here is the way Top Boy plays with all these different stories before bringing them together in the second half of the series.
Taking inspiration from The Wire and Breaking Bad, Top Boy takes the best ideas from these two shows and merges them together into something that feels distinctly British. This grittiness spills over to the way the show is shot too, with a lot of handheld cameras shaking around and a rapid use of dizzying cuts during skirmishes. Topboy certainly isn’t shy about its violence either, with bar brawls, murders and knife wounds a regular occurrence throughout the series. It certainly helps add a tense edge to proceedings and during the final episode Topboy pulls out all the stops to deliver a frantic final showdown that subverts expectations.
What’s particularly interesting here is just how bleak and unforgiving this estate actually is. All three stories that play out here show how inevitable the drug trade is and how difficult it is to escape from once you’re mixed up in it. From kids sitting on park benches desperate for the toilet to Heather’s desperation forcing her to grow weed, all of these issues play into a larger problem of austerity trickling down in Britain and stagnating with the youth.
Writer Ronan Bennett deserves a lot of credit here when it comes to Top Boy’s authenticity. The realistic dialogue, with its pockets of slang and physical mannerisms, along with the clever converging of storylines, make Top Boy one of the more accurate and bleak reflections of London’s underbelly. It’s something rarely seen on the big or small screen and here Top Boy nails almost ever facet of its production. Although the camera work isn’t always as solid as it could be, this British crime drama more than makes up for that with its story. Top Boy is simply a very well made series, and one of the more accurate depictions of this bleak, rarely-seen world.