In the history of TV there have been many groundbreaking gangster dramas — The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Peaky Blinders, The Sopranos, to name a few. But one great show in the genre may have passed under fans’ radars: Top Boy. A Channel 4 production now revived on Netflix, Top Boy’s third and newest season was released this September to high viewing numbers in the United Kingdom, eclipsing those of American shows like Power, Suits and 13 Reasons Why in its first week. For many outside the UK though, it remains little-known. Here’s why it deserves more recognition.
First premiering in 2011, Top Boy follows childhood friends Dushane (Ashley Walters) and Sully (Kano Robinson), drug dealers in the fictional London council estate of Summerhouse, as they try to scramble to the top of the food chain. The show, however, is not just a typical crime story: its “beating heart” lies in family, friendship and the characters’ conflicted mindsets as they try to rise above their impoverished circumstances by any means necessary.
Despite being critically acclaimed, Top Boy was cancelled by Channel 4 in 2013 after its second season, leaving Dushane and Sully in peril after their earlier violent actions backfired. Despite talk of a film and a musical, any hope for a Top Boy resurrection seemed bleak until rapper Drake came on board. A huge fan of the show, the artist spearheaded its return on Netflix and, together with writer-creator Ronan Bennett and stars Walters and Robinson, made sure that the new season would maintain the “integrity” of the original episodes.
The third season of Top Boy finds Dushane and Sully returning to Summerhouse six years later, having lost their high positions in the game. In order to reclaim their thrones and escape from some dire situations, they must come up against Jamie (Michael Ward in a breakthrough performance), the new, ruthless ‘Top Boy’ on the block. Although Dushane and Sully are still very much the centre of this new season, much of the focus is also on Jamie, his two younger brothers, Aaron and Stef, and other teenagers and children who are caught up in the big players’ games.
This care and attention towards young people in the community is what sets Top Boy apart from other gangster shows. Not only is the cast packed with young talent (new blood from the UK hip-hop scene, Little Simz and Dave, have also joined the ensemble), Bennett himself was inspired to write the show when he, a long-time resident of Hackney, saw a small child dealing drugs outside his local supermarket.
Conscious of the fact that he’s a “white middle-class man”, Bennett recruited his friend Gerry Jackson, who’s part of the black community, as a script consultant. It was Jackson who, at the very beginning of the process, helped Bennett reach out to the young men and women whose stories were later woven into the show. The talent behind the camera is also diverse: many of the episodes in the third season are shot by directors Reinaldo Marcus Green and Nit DaCosta, while scenes are workshopped beforehand by the actors, who have the freedom to change Bennett’s lines according to how they see fit. “I don’t care how an actor says it as long as the line carries the same meaning and nuance,” Bennett explains to The Guardian. “In season three, Sully orders someone to be killed: kill him, in my script. ‘Light him up’, in Kano’s version.”
True to its genre, Top Boy is riddled with crime and violence, but its creators have made sure that it touches on other social issues plaguing modern-day Britain, including gentrification, immigration and mental health. “The stories of kids getting into gangs isn’t the only thing going on out there,” says Robinson. “Ronan’s also telling stories of single mothers raising kids, trying to run a business, rents being too high, shops getting shut down.”
The show is also “intensely personal” in other ways as well, dealing with themes of manhood, boyhood, parenthood and grief. Bennett has been open about how the death of his wife from cancer affected season two’s bleak ending, and her presence is felt again in this new season through a scene in which Jamie and his two brothers reminisce about the day the youngest of them was born. The story told by Jamie is taken straight from a real conversation Bennett’s wife had with a stranger in the park. Jamie being both the provider and the father figure for his two younger brothers is also inspired by a real news story about three young orphans whose parents died within days of each other, prompting the eldest to become his siblings’ guardian. “Everything goes into the mix,” says Bennett.
The show has been criticised by some for “perpetuating stereotypes”. British comedian London Hughes in particular, publicly commented on Top Boy’s return, accusing it of contributing to “negative black stereotypes blown up on the big screen”. For the cast and crew, it’s a matter of authenticity. “Top Boy definitely does not glamorise or glorify what’s happening,” insists Little Sims, who plays newcomer Shelley. “It’s just a real representation of our world today.”
Writing on gal-dem, producer-writer Tobi Kyseremateng argues that “Misplaced energy is being directed towards critiquing other black makers, rather than critiquing the racist structures of the British media”. Kyeremateng argues that “ideas around ‘challenging stereotypes’ pander to the same white viewership that criminalises black communities” and that “the desire to represent the multifaceted, non-monolithic faces of blackness cannot come from a place of attempting to appease whiteness”.
Hughes’ frustration with Top Boy is, of course, very understandable: much of it stems from the fact that there is a woeful shortage of other depictions of Black Britishness on screen. Top Boy, like many other shows with characters of colour at the centre, suffers from the burden of representation: when you’re one of the few, you’re laden with the responsibility of representing everyone in your community, a task that’s impossible to achieve. It is interesting to note that similar discussions are not raised about other shows in the genre, like Peaky Blinders or The Sopranos; the crimes of these characters are not seen as indicative of a whole community of people, and the violence portrayed in, say, Breaking Bad or Sons Of Anarchy, is rarely scrutinised on the same level.
The underlying prejudice shown towards projects led by characters of colour, especially those in which crime is a major theme, has seen many shows and films like Top Boy not receiving the recognition they deserve; actors in these projects can become underappreciated as a result, sometimes because of an ignorant, mistaken assumption that they are ‘just playing themselves on screen’. It is still too early to determine whether the recognition or lack thereof for the Top Boy revival will go down the same route. But in this crowded era of prestige TV, the show certainly deserves more than it’s likely to get.
Top Boy season three is available to stream now on Netflix. Read about all the new British drama coming to the BBC, ITV and more in 2019 and beyond.