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Review: 'The Red Road' heads toward mystery

Many seeds are planted in a moody Sundance series, but all is not yet revealed.

By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

7:15 AM CST, February 27, 2014

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Years of amateur and professional TV-watching and the impressive title attached to my byline notwithstanding, I have never believed that I would last a minute as a television programmer. I know what I like, and usually why I like it, but what will float and what will sink on the great waters of commerce I admit to be beyond my ken.

Still, had anyone in charge at Sundance Channel (now calling itself SundanceTV) asked me whether the network should follow its fine "Top of the Lake," "The Returned" and "Rectify" — slow, atmospheric, morally ambiguous, semi-rural stories of crime and family in which old wounds are opened and buried secrets surface — with a fourth such series, I might have suggested it was time for a big-city screwball romance or something with unicorns.

Between those shows and the likes of "The Killing" and "The Bridge" and "True Detective" and "Low Winter Sun" (which I, and possibly I alone, watched to the end) elsewhere on the dial, there has been an abundance of such stuff — how much moodiness can the system take?

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But consistency counts for something when you're building a brand. And "The Red Road," which begins Thursday on the network, is — to judge by the first two of six episodes — very good. Set in a fictional New Jersey woodland town and concerning in part an Indian tribe, the Lenape, it is the product of an impressive trust of talent.

Executive producer Sarah Condon (HBO's "Looking" and "Bored to Death," but also Nickelodeon classic "Clarissa Explains It All") sent creator Aaron Guzikowski ("Prisoners") news stories about the Lenape, community relations and toxic waste. Show runner Bridget Carpenter spent five years on "Friday Night Lights"; James Gray ("Little Odessa," "The Immigrant") directed the tone-setting first episode.

It is not as uncanny as the Sundance series it follows — many of its constituent parts and players and dramatic relations are familiar ones, even the way in which some ostensibly good characters might compromise themselves and some clearly bad characters are shown to be something more than less than human. The symmetrical balance and historical connectedness of the two male leads — Martin Henderson's cop, Jason Momoa's ex-con, tied by the troubled woman who is now Henderson's wife (a terrific Julianne Nicholson) — feels almost too perfect at times.

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And yet, though many seeds are quickly sewn — there is a missing college student, a literally forbidden romance, a prodigal son's return, a mother's shaky mental state — it is hard, in a good way, to see where it's headed, past the more obvious personal entanglements and somewhat-beside-the-point criminal actions. It feels productively mysterious.

The show tells you covertly a lot about the characters, building them up through bits of behavior and stray remarks that can seem contradictory at first but do start to cohere into something more complex. Henderson is, it's true, called on to sweat a lot before the story gets very far at all.

But Momoa — a male model who starred in the 2011 "Conan the Barbarian" and looks for a second like he might be the hero (and who knows?) — feels dangerous without seeming to do much at all. And if the leads seem sometimes to have to carry too much of an electrical charge, dramatically speaking, the supporting cast — including Tamara Tunie, Tom Sizemore and Mike Farrell, with Allie Gonino and Annalise Basso as Henderson's daughters — keeps the series grounded.

Condon has said that "Red Road" is about "where this nation came from and where it's going" and Guzikowski that "it deals with themes of what it is to be an American." Fortunately, he has written people strong enough to stand only for themselves.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'The Red Road'

Where: Sundance

When: 9 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)

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