Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
In 2011, we were introduced to Dushane (Ashley Walters) and Sully (Kane “Kano” Robinson) as they tried to navigate the treacherous waters of the London criminal underworld. They were each, in their own way, trying to be the Top Boy — that is, the head of the underground economy of drug dealing. The first season aired on Channel 4 in Britain in 2011, and the second season aired in 2013. (Both are available on Netflix as “Top Boy: Summerhouse.”) The show was, thereafter, shelved, but it did not stay on the shelf.
Aubrey Graham, better known to the world as Drake, was a fan of the show and brought it back with the help of Maverick Carter and Drake’s manager, Future the Prince.
“Top Boy” stands above the many similar shows that have come out in the past 10 years.
“BMF” is an enjoyable show to watch, but it does not have the depth of storytelling of “Top Boy.” It’s good for discussion but does not stand up to critical scrutiny. The “Power” franchise is good popcorn TV, but it does not compare to “Top Boy.” The characters are paper thin, and the narrative feels more like a telenovela than a serious examination of crime. There is suspense in the storytelling (indeed, we cannot wait to see what is going to happen next), but once you step back from the series and examine it holistically, you may realize that what you’ve been watching is hollow. “Power” amuses, but it does not edify.
“Snowfall” gets the closest. In fact, I enjoyed that show so much that I wrote about it. With “Snowfall,” you get depth. You get an understanding of how drug policies in America are connected to America’s war on Black bodies.
Yet, “Snowfall” is not a perfect show. Much of the story revolves around Teddy McDonald, a white CIA agent who is flooding the streets with drugs. No one watched “Snowfall” for the asides about Teddy. We accepted it, but I would have liked less about him and more about Franklin and his downfall.
Indeed, “Top Boy” is the best Black crime show of the past 10 years. But going back further, I’ve heard many call this show a British “The Wire,” comparing it to David Simon’s great HBO labyrinthian crime drama, but that comparison misses the mark.
“Top Boy” is not “The Wire.” That show told the story of Baltimore from top to bottom. It was an exploration of urban decay set against the backdrop of late-stage capitalism.
David Simon, the creator and showrunner of “The Wire,” was interested in the way that drug dealers, cops, politicians, teachers, addicts and media are all interconnected — one group needing the others to survive and make life meaningful. In his Baltimore, everything is interconnected and everyone is complicit.
“Top Boy” is not interested in any of that. Ronan Bennett, the Irish creator and showrunner, seems to be interested in one thing and one thing only: the criminal underworld.
We only see people who are not in the drug game if their lives somehow intersect with those who do sell drugs. We only see cops if they are on their way to harass or arrest criminals, but we are not shown their inner lives. We see everything through the eyes of those on the streets trying to make it in a world that left them no other choice but to engage in an activity that is killing people who look like them.
This is a brutal show. It does have moments of joy (indeed, Black folks all around the world have found ways to keep a smile on their faces despite the direst of circumstances), but just outside the frame of every episode and every scene is the lurking dread of inevitability. Death is a constant companion to the characters in this show. They know that any day that companion may visit them.
“Top Boy” takes seriously the lived experience of people who sell drugs — and it posits that there are few ways to make a life if you are born into the situation they find themselves in. There are few examples in the show of people who were born into poverty and made it out. The ghettos of London are unforgiving, and the people who deal drugs do not have the luxury of sentimentality. As Sully says in one episode, “If we are not monsters, we’re food … and I could never be food.”
This show stands above other shows that try to do what it’s doing like the “Power” franchise and “Snowfall,” but it is also doing something different than “The Wire.” A more apt comparison is not a show at all. It is Brian De Palma’s 1983 crime epic “Scarface.”
In that movie, we see the cutthroat existence of a person who is forced into a life of crime. We see the parties and the accouterments of that lifestyle, but we also see the brutality. It does not end well for Tony Montana, and we feel that once it is all said and done, it will not end well for most of the people on “Top Boy.”
And that’s what makes “Top Boy” one of the best shows of the last decade. It is unflinching in how it shows criminal life on the streets of London, but we also see the universality of Blackness. The truth that my grandmother taught me years ago about people who look like me: “Folks is folks no matter where you go.”
I have never been to the U.K. I do not know the experiences that shaped the people on screen to be who they are, but I feel a kinship with them. I know the struggle of trying to make a life in the shadow of white supremacy. This show helped me to see that everywhere that you find people whose skin is kissed by the sun, you find struggle — but you also find resilience.
Yet, this is not a show without sympathy. It may be a white Irishman who created it, but Walters and Robinson imbued this narrative with joy and pathos, love and pain.
The only shows that rival this one for the best of the past 10 years are “Atlanta” (which was brilliant at the beginning and end but was muddled in the middle), “Lovecraft Country” (which only got one season but was very promising), “P-Valley” (which is, to my eye, not that great because of the melodrama) and “Watchmen” (which was great as a miniseries — not a fully fleshed out TV show.)
“Top Boy” is not just the best Black show in recent memory, it is one of the best shows, Black or white, of the 21st century.
Lawrence Ware is a teaching assistant professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University and co-director of the Center for Africana Studies.
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