Top Boy 2019
Smoke Gets In Your Hands
Everyone’s Got Family
You Don’t Know Me
When Top Boy released back in 2011, the gritty British drama brought a unique slant to the drug game that rivaled that of The Wire. It was bleak, frantic and fast-paced across both seasons of action. Some of that can be attributed to its length and I’ve commented before about the pacing of the second season, which in my eyes was better than the first but its plot needed another 2 or 3 episodes to breathe. With an open ending and a frantic scramble to the finish line, Top Boy ended with much-deserved praise for its depiction of Britain’s underground scene and despite its problems, still managed to maintain an air of intrigue and excitement through its episodes.
Fast forward 6 years and with Drake acting as an executive producer, along with some of the original cast returning, Top Boy revamps and reboots the franchise to deliver a new story split across 10 episodes. Despite being unofficially labelled as Season 3, Top Boy is very much a show doing its own thing, and as Netflix informed me, this is not a third season but instead a sequel of sorts without the official title. Despite a more pacey second half and a dramatic close to the season, Top Boy doesn’t quite manage to hit the same heights the original series achieved with its frantic, scrappy pacing.
The pressures of leading Summerhouse falls to new boy Jamie and his crew this time around, who lament the inflated prices from the Turks they’re getting drugs from, claiming this is thanks to Brexit. As they explore alternate suppliers, hungry prospective gangs vouch for power, leading Jamie and the others into a turf war with a rival gang who try and seize this opportunity to claim the supply themselves.
Meanwhile, Dushane carves a new life for himself in Kingston, Jamaica. Leading a somewhat unremarkable life off the radar, an incident early on sees Dushane pulled back into the life he tried so hard to leave behind; the threat of certain death hanging over him if he doesn’t take this opportunity to head back to Summerhouse. With Sully nearing the end of his prison sentence, all of this builds slowly to the end of the fourth episode where Dushane finally gets his shipment ready to start doing business in his old hunting ground.
From here, the series definitely picks up and the second half of the season sees Dushane and Sully teaming up and going face to face with Jamie as the power struggle for Summerhouse reaches fever pitch. This consequently brings the Jamaican drug lord Sugar into the fold, tying both stories together and resulting in a climactic finale that sees Dushane and Sully risking it all to try and wrestle back control of Summerhouse once and for all.
Despite a much improved second half, Top Boy still struggles to emulate the great work done in the original series, with an abundance of long shots that drag out the length of the story unnecessarily. Whether it be a 25 second shot of Dushane walking with his cousin over his back or 45 seconds of Jamie picking up a photo and staring at it, Top Boy is not subtle about its use of long shots and this will either make or break the show for you.
Stylistically, Top Boy feels a lot more vibrant and colourful compared to its predecessors and this glossy, polished feel loses some of the gritty edge that made the first two seasons so effective. While the extra use of colour does help to make the show more visually appealing, it also feels like a missed opportunity to rekindle that familiar muted, cold feel. It doesn’t help either that the new characters just don’t have the same allure as the original cast and even Jamie, who’s supposed to be the big antagonistic threat to Dushane and Sully, is actually pretty empathetic and feels much closer to that of an antihero than the outright big bad of the season.
It’s not all bad though and some of the throwbacks to the original series will certainly please fans of the original. There’s a particularly amusing scene in the second episode where Dushane heads into a swanky coffee shop and hears how business is booming; a throwback to the conversation he had with Rihanna about entering that very trade and doing away with the drug scene. Old characters crop up too although who these are I’ll remain quiet about for fear of spoilers but suffice to say, there’s some good closure to some of these guys, especially in episode 4 where things get pretty dramatic.
Although some of the ideas are a bit on-the-nose, especially the racism and xenophobia around Brexit and immigration, Topboy does well to build the world up but populates it with new, cookie-cutter characters that fail to stand out. By comparison to the first and second season that had multiple plot threads running alongside its main narrative, Top Boy is particularly rigid by design, sticking closely to two stories early on before these converge into one as the rival groups clash over the Summerhouse turf.
Criticisms aside, Top Boy’s return is certainly a welcome one and the show does well to rekindle the same mood and vibe the first two seasons managed to achieve. Those looking for another frantically paced season chock full of action set pieces and sharp narrative work like before though may find themselves disappointed. Much like the Hip-Hop scene, a lot of the good stuff is hidden underground while the face-value material is glossy, rigid and lacking a cutting edge. Top Boy is certainly not a bad series but it does require a fair amount of patience to get to the good stuff. It is a little overlong but if you make it through this early slump, Top Boy delivers in the best possible way.