Cape Cod Becomes a Sultry Place of Murder and Addiction in ‘Hightown’
“Hightown” almost plays precisely how anyone would imagine a woke murder mystery produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Set in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, it feels at home with ruffians, thugs and lots of drugs. But it also features an edgier queer angle combined with old-fashioned pulpiness. Its main plot is one you probably came across several times while binging or channel surfing. A corpse is found and somehow becomes the key to every ill and vice in town.
The corpse in question belongs to Sherry Henry (Masha King), who we see get shot down by drug dealers in the opening of the pilot on a dark road. Her body washes ashore near where Jackie Quinones (Monica Raymund), an agent with the National Marine Fisheries Service, goes out to puke after a long night of intoxication and hooking up. Arriving at the scene are Detectives Ray Abruzzo (James Badge Dale) and Alan Saintille (Dohn Norwood). It turns out Sherry was Ray’s informant within the inner circles of kingpin Frankie Cuevas (Amaury Nolasco), who is currently running his drug empire from behind bars. From this point on the plot splits into two main highways. Jackie, after partying too hard among Provincetown’s queer nightlife, is ordered to go to rehab. But while undergoing treatment she is determined to help out with the Sherry Henry investigation, especially because of a connection she makes with a necklace on the victim. Meanwhile Ray reaches out to Cuevas’s wife, Renee (Riley Voelkel) who has been stripping at a nightclub to pay the bills and feed her son. Ray makes the terms clear, if she helps him get close to Cuevas he won’t expose her current gig. But you can’t have good pulp without Ray also feeling obvious physical attraction to mob wife in distress.
“Hightown” is Jerry Bruckheimer’s idea of tackling the opioid crisis, or that has been the main selling point. Officially the show is the creation of Rebecca Perry Cutter, who also put together “Gotham” on Fox with its revisionist take on Batman. Among the roster of directors for the first season is the welcome addition of Rachel Morrison, the acclaimed cinematographer of “Black Panther.” But the Bruckheimer imprint is unmistakable in the fast pacing, saturated look and hyper sexuality with injections of sweaty testosterone. These are not so much characters as walking ideas. Nearly every week a new show premieres where someone’s corpse is found which then sets off the plot. In “Hightown” the death of Sherry Henry is the beginning of venturing into the dark underbelly of Cape Cod where heroin is running rampant. Jackie is obviously the hero of the show, but for the first few episodes she is a complete mess. She drinks too much, takes drugs by the handful and even scares the women she takes to bed. Once at rehab she quickly seduces a cute prospect. This is the kind of show that thinks “edgy” still means lingering on a lesbian sex scene with pounding music, or shots of assless chaps at a queer event. Even Jackie’s unforgiving gay landlord Fred (Francis Jue) demands payment while walking around his pink underwear. It’s all in good fun, but no one should mistake “Hightown” for something other than sultry entertainment where the word “trashy” is not an insult, but a description of a time-honored genre.
If the show is progressive in its use of queer characters, Ray then fills in the slot for any macho heterosexuals who also tune in. He never seems to talk in an octave higher than low bass, and while listening to a wiretap recording of phone sex he carefully locks the office door to masturbate. As you can expect he has a tendency to rush off on his own, which annoys partner Saintille. As he recruits Renee to be his new informant, Ray inevitably starts feeling urges towards her for the simple reason that he’s a macho cop and she’s a stripper who no doubt needs to be rescued by someone such as him. Raymund, Badge and Voelkel all pull it off convincingly because they give it enough of a straight face attitude. The dialogue is mostly beyond expository and simplistic, but they have the look to walk around a bad pulp tale. The same goes for side characters like Osito (Atkins Estimond), a beefy gangster tasked with Cuevas to “watch over” Renee. How is not clear considering she has to strip and complains Cuevas sends her barely enough to survive. The best character in terms of drama is Krista (Crystal Lake Evans), Sherry’s best friend who witnesses the killing and scrambles to find ways to hide and begs others for help. She does ring like a truer look at the opioid crisis and a life gripped by addiction.
“Hightown” delivers trashy thrills within a very somber, serious setting. The best aspect of the show is how it is set beneath all the glossy exteriors of Provincetown as a tourist destination, or coastal Massachusetts as a hipster playground. It flirts with the rougher edges of an America where drug and crime swirl in a sea of despair. To describe the show’s more over the top element is not a slight on it. Even if it just wants to entertain, it at least does so within a world that deserves a disturbed glance.
“Hightown” season one premieres May 17 and airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on Starz.