Top Boy is one of the best shows I’ve seen this year, but no one seems to be talking about it.
In 2011, we were introduced to Dushane (Ashley Walters) and Sully (Kane Robinson), two drug dealers in East London’s Hackney neighborhood, as they tried to navigate the treacherous waters of the London 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. After two four-episode series aired—the first in 2011, the second in 2013—on Britain’s Channel 4 public-access station, the show was canceled, and we thought that was the end of their story. Enter the team of Aubrey “Drake” Graham, Abdel “Future The Prince” Nur, Maverick Carter and Jamal Henderson, who worked with Netflix to revive the series.
In 2019, Top Boy is back and as good as it has ever been. We catch up with Dushane and Sully, but we are also introduced to a new person vying to be Top Boy: Jamie, a ruthless hustler on the street, but a kind spirit to those in his life he cares about.
Let me give you six reasons why you should stop what you’re doing and watch Top Boy now.
From the street kids selling drugs to drug abusers trying to escape their reality, everyone on the show feels like a fully fleshed-out human being because of the performances. Every person has a story, and though we are not always aware of what they are dealing with, we feel it. When blood is shed, we don’t just see it as drug dealers fighting over turf, we understand what is at stake because the actors were given the time to not only introduce the audience to the drug game but also the people who are stuck playing it.
We are taken aback by how Jamie, the new Top Boy played beautifully by Micheal Ward, can be so tender with his brothers over whom he has guardianship yet so impatient, uncompromising and, when necessary, violent when he is in the streets. As for Sully, played with quiet ruthlessness by the grime UK rapper Kane Robinson (known better as Kano), he is, well, a sociopath. He is lovable, but a sociopath nevertheless. Sully loves his daughter and is tender and kind with her, yet, on the streets, he is not to be trifled with. He is not as unrelenting as he was in previous seasons of Top Boy (renamed Top Boy: Summerhouse, also available on Netflix), but when it is time for action, Sully is a Stay-Ready All-Star.
While Sully and Jamie add flavor to the narrative, it is Dushane that is the heart of the show. In all three seasons, the show does not work without the focused intensity of this character played by Ashley Walters. Like Ghost from Power, we get the sense that Dushane is forced to be tough and uncompromising. Yet, unlike Ghost, Dushane is not trying to leave the drug game. Once he returns to the game, he is not trying to find the nearest exit. In Dushane’s mind, if you’re going to play the game, you might as well win.
This may seem trivial, but the fact that Drake became an immediate fan upon discovering the series via YouTube in 2014 is how we got a whole 10-episode series in 2019. He was saddened when he found out through a Twitter back-and-forth with Walters that the show had been canceled and thus set the wheels in motion to bring it back. In 2017, he worked out a deal with Netflix to come on as an executive producer. Along with Nur, Carter, and Henderson, Top Boy was revived.
Quietly, Drake is becoming a stellar TV producer in his own right. He was executive producer of HBO’s Euphoria back in the summer and now he has a hand in this. He is proving, yet again, that hip-hop can be a launching pad to other business ventures. And while his lyrics are hella corny to me, I cannot fault his taste in television.
Given who the executive producer is, it should not be surprising that the music of the show is incredibly dope. I don’t know how much input Drake had on the music, but London’s Grime sound is all over the show, introducing a lot of new artists and sounds to audiences that might be unfamiliar with them.
Since watching the show, I’ve found myself randomly saying “innit,” “wah-gwan,” and “bruvs.” I usually get blank stares from my interlocutors, but that is how much I fell in love with the language of the show. The way that the characters speak is a thing of beauty, and though I do NOT recommend watching without subtitles, once you get into the rhythm of the speech patterns, you’ll find yourself trying to replicate them. (Sadly, only Panama Jackson will talk to me the way they do.)
We are in a golden age of television. Voices that have previously been marginalized are now being heard. The only issue is that black voices from around the world are still not being given the platform they deserve in America—this is a show that tries to remedy that. The way blackness works around the world is fascinating, and Britain is no exception. As this show has always shown, blackness is still something that people who live in Britain must contend with.
The way the white characters react to the black bodies they come into contact with is an unspoken subtext in the show but permeates the interactions. We see repeatedly how black folks are “othered,” and when there is a relationship between a black character and a white character in the third season of the show, there is a clear power imbalance that affects everything and everyone else. Blackness is inescapable, and the way the characters wrestle with it is illuminating and, at times, terrifying.
Do yourself a favor and watch Top Boy. You’ll be glad you did, innit?