STARRING: Ashley Walters, Kane Robinson, Michael Ward, Shone Romulus, Lisa Dwan, Jasmine Jobson, Kadeem Ramsay, Saffron Hocking, Kola Bokinni, Hope Ikpoku, David Omoregie, Simbi Ajikawo, Ricky Smarts, Giacomo Mancini, Saffron Hocking, Seraphina Beh, Ashley Thomas and Elizabeth Tan
Dushane returns from exile in Jamaica to London in order to reclaim his throne on the streets of London as he dives back into the highly lucrative drug market. Meanwhile his spiritual brother, partner and sometimes rival Sully also returns after a stint in prison comes to an end. Meanwhile, the young, hungry and ruthless Jamie sees an opportunity to become gang leader and take the throne as his ambitions leave no place for Dushane and Sully.
Once running the show at the Summerhouse housing estate in London, Dushane has fled to Jamaica, working at his cousin’s car-rental shop. When Dushane finds himself in a tricky situation with the local drug lord on the island named Sugar, he proposes that he returns to Summerhouse and sell his product. Unbeknownst to him however, is a hungry and ruthless young man named Jamie, sees an opportunity to become top boy in the area and gasps it with both hands. Meanwhile Sully comes to the end of his time served in prison and returns home trying to adapt to life outside again while Dushane proposes that his friend and sometimes rival teams up in order to take over once again.
Netflix is promoting this season of Top Boy as season 1, showcasing the other two series as Top Boy: Summerhouse. For those that are unaware of the story, Top Boy originally ran for two series on UK broadcaster Channel 4, four episodes each, between 2011 and 2013. Then, the series gained a celebrity fan a few years ago in Canadian rapper Drake, who caught the series on YouTube and loved how the way it depicted London and the characters. He enjoyed it so much, Drake would end up having a meeting with Netflix, with Vice President of Original Content Cindy Holland citing that “Drake’s passion for Top Boy was clear from the first conversation, and he really drove its resurrection”. Thus, we have the Top Boy revival series, with original creator Ronan Bennett back to write the series as well as Daniel West, with the episodes being directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (who directed the feature Monsters And Men), Nia DaCosta (who directed Little Woods and will direct the upcoming Candyman reboot), Brady Hood and Aneil Karia.
Ashley Walters and Kane Robinson return to reprise the lead roles of Dushane and Sully and we’re introduced to the two of them separately, as we witness them going through their own identity crisis. Following the events of how the second series ended, Dushane is now living the life of a normal, working class individual in Jamaica, until a stranger from his neck of the woods notices him and and is stunned to find him later working at a car-rental shop. This causes a chain reaction of events that leads to Dushane being in the crosshairs of a crime lord set to kill him…until he proposes that he sells his product back home, giving Dushane the chance to save his skin and also become top boy again. Ashley Walters quickly eases back into the character with silent swagger, as he returns to his roots and starts to rebuilt what he lost, whilst also being interested in seeing his mother’s carer Shelley. Meanwhile Sully returns after a stint in prison, meeting up with recognisable faces to those that are fans of the original series run and attempts to rekindle a relationship with his daughter. Kane Robinson is primarily known for being as one of the pioneers of grime, going under the rap name Kano, so outside of portraying Sully, I haven’t seen him act in much else (though his IMDB highlights his only other acting credits include Tower Lock, Rollin’ With The Nines and a short called Point Blank) but for me, personally, I thought Kane was great in this season of Top Boy. Sully still has his hot-head streak that he had in the previous series, but here Kane gets some dramatic and emotional scenes to handle and I thought he down them brilliantly, particularly in the scenes he shares with Ricky Smarts, who returns to reprise the role of Jason. The chemistry between Walters and Robinson provide the series strongest and entertaining moments. Shone Romulus is one of the original cast members that returns here and I personally enjoyed his character arc throughout the season as Dris and sympathised alot with him.
In terms of the new cast members, Michael Ward definitely makes an impression on screen as Jaime, the new top boy of Summerhouse who isn’t going to just roll over for the duo since they’re back, regardless of their status in the area. While he’s built as the antagonist, there’s alot of time and depth given to Jaime’s upbringing and how he’s raising his two brothers to the point that despite his extreme actions that we witness throughout this season, you can’t help but empathise with him. Basically everyone here is acting on working within this world of crime because either all that they know or believe that there’s nothing out there for them. Someone else that also impressed me was Jasmine Jobson as Jaq, one of the lieutenant’s for Dushane and Sully that recruits young boys to sell their food and do pickups. There will be some comparing her character to Snoop from The Wire, but Jobson provides a fearless front and yet a particular vulnerability when she is alone with those outside of the life that she cares about. In the limited screentime he has, David Omoregie (aka rapper Dave) is good, Simbi Ajikawo (aka rapper Little Simz) is really good providing the moral compass of the season and Lisa Dwan is really good as drug supplier Lizzie.
While it’s main focus is on the theme of crime in London, the series always tackled social issues in its original run (mental health for one) and here it wastes no time in tackling issues of immigration and deportation, very much in vein to the Windrush scandal that was making waves in the news last year. They’re also tackling the issue of Brexit, leading to racism and discrimination within the smaller communities against others, gentrification (highlighted in particular when Dushane walks into an artisan coffee shop) and again mental health.
For me personally, the season takes its time to eventually find momentum after the initial three episodes and some of the sub-plots I didn’t really care for but understood why they existed (the overall character journey for Ats in particular). The show feels like it doesn’t have the same grittiness as the original run, with its budget improved and slicker direction, but I believe it fits well with how times have changed since then. Some have argued and will continue to that the return of Top Boy is making a backwards move for British-Black representation, believing it reinforces negative black stereotypes because there’s certain scenes here that you could see and counteract their points.
While it takes its time to find its footing to establish to a new audience who the characters are, once it gets going Top Boy returns to a world of random chaos and interesting characters to focus on. Ashley Walters and Kane Robinson are solid on screen and Michael Ward is definitely one to watch over the coming years as he makes a big impression as Jamie. Some might find some of the sub-plots not as interesting, or that some of its social commentary can be too-on-the-nose, with its six-year hiatus, Top Boy’s return was definitely worth the wait. 7/10