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A haven for writers, visual artists and open-air partiers, the queer-friendly Provincetown practically exhales drama. Yet, for all the genius of Norman Mailer, Anthony Bourdain or John Waters — to name just a few iconoclasts who’ve passed through or made the city their home — the steeped locale still has plenty of room for a fresh take.
Crammed with over-the-top sex, drug use, and weaponry use (including guns and one bloody ax), what P-town gets with the new Starz crime drama “Hightown” is a pulpy summer beach read of a series that finds its groove as the season wears on.
Centering on fisheries agent Jackie Quiñones, played with grit and charm by Monica Raymund (“Chicago Fire”), the title cleverly mashes-up nearby Hyannis with a reference to one of the narrative’s driving forces — opioid use. Jackie’s addictions have taken such hold that she forgets who she calls to pick her up after a near-deadly car crash. She tells the rehab doctor about finding a dead body but clearly she’s had a problem long before that trigger got pulled.
By way of Jackie, aka Jack, the show chips away at conventions both within the crime genre and within the race- and class-limited conceptions of Old World Cape. Like the B-side of the Florida Keys so well depicted in “Bloodline,” the flourish of cheeky Hamptons glam in “Revenge,” or its darker side shown in “The Affair,” this destination can’t survive on tourism or fishing alone, either. (Not that it necessarily ever did but we’re dealing in perceptions here.) Plus P-town’s reputation as a white gay mecca gets redressed by this show’s dose of estrogen and characters of color.
The show’s creator, Rebecca Cutter, grew up in Cambridge and summered on the Cape. She enlisted the help of another Massachusetts native, Rachel Morrison, in directing the first two episodes of “Hightown.” Morrison became the first woman nominated for an Academy Award for best cinematography for the novelistic (and far too underrated) “Mudbound” from 2017. Her presence is initially felt with swooping shots that glide just over the glistening low-tide beach and, in a scene from Jack’s dream, up to a corpse that opens its eyes.
Jack can’t get that body out of her mind and, despite being more law enforcement adjacent than cop, she pursues the case. She butts heads with narcotics detective Ray Abruzzo (James Badge Dale), a guy with his own boundary issues. Badge Dale — always a coup — has been quietly turning in heavyweight performances as a backwoods man just off course in both “Mickey and the Bear” (2019) and “Little Woods” (2018). Some series leave all the extremes to the background players but here Jack and Ray duke it out for most intense, which can make them unrelatable. That’s why all the scenes with Jack’s partner Ed (Mike Pniewski) and Ray’s partner Alan (Dohn Norwood) come as a breath of fresh air.
In some ways, Jack’s buddy Junior (Shane Harper) and Ray’s informant and love interest, Renee (Riley Voelkel), have more complicated choices and seemingly fewer options, allowing their characters to draw more sympathy. Harper nails the nasally “white boy” delinquent trying to make a better life for his kid and Voelkel has the uphill task of trying to bring dimension to a stripper who is undoubtedly an object — both in the camera’s eye and in the show’s storyline. Even while half-dressed she keeps her alternating allegiance to Ray and kingpin boyfriend Frankie (Amaury Nolasco) under wraps. Other notable performances come from Atkins Estimond as Osito, a gangster “with a code,” and Ana Nogueira as Junior’s love interest, Donna.
Plotwise, if you can get past the gratuitous use of bodies, “Hightown” comes together in unexpected ways. Some of the best scenes involve characters’ struggles with the endless loop of addiction and recovery and the backroom business side of the drug trade, handled in one story thread by minors, suggesting a possible setup for a season two.
Yet, what ultimately makes “Hightown” worth watching is the Cape. Maybe I’m easy, and definitely a little too cooped up, but there’s an escapism to be found along the dune grass flanked highways and Commercial Street in the height of summer. Like the imperfect yet oddly magnetic “City on a Hill,” with season two due out on Showtime sometime soon, I keep coming back to these places, and the people they attract, flaws and all.
New episodes of “Hightown” air at 8 p.m. Sunday on Starz. Episode three, “Rebellion Dogs,” airs Sunday, May 31.
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