Original scripted cable dramas continue to sprout like spring flowers, including Sundance TV's "The Red Road" and the return of History's "Vikings." Both series demonstrate that sense-of-place and setting are often the defining elements in cable dramas.
"The Red Road"
Sundance TV continues to impress with its original series offerings. Last year the network took viewers into the life of a prison parolee in "Rectify" and to a French town where the dead walk again in "The Returned."
This year Sundance wants viewers to walk "The Red Road" (9 tonight), a six-hour crime drama with another unusual setting. The series observes the culture clash between New Jersey police and a fictional Indian tribe, the Lenape, who are federally unrecognized and based on the real-world Ramapough tribe.
That clash is seen through the prism of two families. Police officer Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson) covers up a potentially criminal incident involving his alcoholic wife, Jean (Julianne Nicholson), that occurred near where tribe members live. This puts him in league with ex-con Philip Kopus (Jason Momoa, "Game of Thrones"), the son of tribal leader Marie Van Der Veen (Pittsburgh native Tamara Tunie, "Law & Order: SVU"). Marie's foster son, Junior (Kiowa Gordon), dates Jensen's daughter -- despite Jensen's order that his daughter stay away from Junior -- which is what drew Jensen's wife into the mountains where the Lenape live. (Cameo alert: Mike Farrell of "M*A*S*H" plays Jean's politician father beginning in the second episode.)
Complicating things further, Kopus has some sort of past relationship with Jean that may also involve the long-ago drowning death of her brother.
"The Red Road" weaves a tangled web of associations among its characters and unlike some of Sundance's past series, this one is more mainstream. It moves at a faster pace than "Rectify" or miniseries "Top of the Lake," although it bears some similarities to "Lake" in terms of its tone.
With his hulking frame and perma-arched eyebrow, Mr. Momoa is well-suited to play the heavy. But he also brings a sense of mystery to Philip Kopus and some smarts that the flunkies around Philip clearly lack.
Some of the plot falls into the No-Good-Can-Come-From-This category, especially Jensen's cover-up efforts and his willingness to call a truce with Kopus. But mostly "The Red Road," written by Aaron Guzikowski ("Contraband," "Prisoners"), is a thrilling enough character-driven crime drama that doesn't shy away from cultural explorations, especially through Ms. Tunie's Earth Mother character. Marie is the only character to emerge from the premiere episode untainted by lies and deceit although it's clear she will face some difficult choices ahead that one hopes will lead to dramatic twists in the winding "Red Road."
In the first season of "Vikings," restless warrior Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) usurped power, went on raiding expeditions in England, formed a new alliance with King Hornik (Donal Logue), made a monk (George Blagden) his slave, quarreled with his brother, Rollo (Clive Standen), and cheated on his wife, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), with Princess Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland).
What's a bearded, shaved-headed Viking to do for an encore? Maybe take a second wife -- shades of "Big Love"! -- and definitely get into an ultimately pointless battle with his brother.
The first 10 minutes of the new season (10 tonight) is devoted to a bloody, brutal battle between Ragnar's forces and men loyal to Rollo that ultimately does nothing to reset the story.
Once past that silliness, "Vikings" gets down to soapy business when Aslaug shows up in Ragnar's village with news that does not elicit a great response from Lagertha, who ends up leaving town with Ragnar's son, Bjorn, in tow.
Four years pass between episodes one and two, and when Bjorn is seen again in episode three, he's played by Alexander Ludwig, who played Cato in "The Hunger Games." It also takes Ragnar four years to prepare to go raiding in England again.
The setting and culture of Scandinavia in A.D. 796 made "Vikings" stand out in its first season, but at this point it's just another period soap on cable. It's entertaining enough, filled with battles and occasionally interesting character turns and cultural twists (particularly when the priest joins a raid on a church), but it's not essential quality TV viewing along the lines of "Mad Men," "The Good Wife," "Game of Thrones," etc.