The level of nuance in the storytelling on “Hightown,” a new hour-long drug thriller from Starz, can be easily illustrated by a fake internet comment shown under a news item about the show’s inciting murder: “Drug addicts are ruining the Cape!” Imagine someone barking that in a Massachusetts accent with all the subtlety of a cocaine-covered rainbow flag, and you’ve got the basic gist of “Hightown.” The gritty crime drama swirls around an eclectic mix of an unusual setting, hackneyed plot tropes, and some of television’s most insidious stereotypes. That’s perhaps not surprising given the hook of the show, which is predicated on the juxtaposition of setting a hard-nosed drug thriller in Provincetown, the utopian gay vacation town at the very tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Created by newcomer Rebecca Cutter (“Gotham”) and executive-produced by procedural drama maven Jerry Bruckheimer, “Hightown” is an uneven mash-up of incongruous themes, a veritable grab bag of provocations that wouldn’t even have felt edgy 20 years ago. That may have been forgivable if the plot was halfway intriguing, but the twists are about as surprising as a drag queen in P-town.
That the picturesque seacoast is home to some of the country’s worst drug problems won’t be news to most Massholes, the nickname used by New Englanders for residents of the predominantly white state, known for their distinctive accents and aggressive driving. The regional dialect is a major feature of “Hightown,” and whether or not that demographic was in need of more screen time, the mostly unknown actors do a wicked good job with the unique timbre made famous by “The Departed” and “Good Will Hunting.” Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends.
“Hightown” follows a federal fisheries agent named Jackie Quiñones, a hard-partying casanova who beds a different gal every night. We know she’s a lesbian because she says things like, “Liquor? I don’t even know her,” and “He’s barking up the wrong lesbian.” After one late-night escapade she stumbles onto the beach, where she becomes the first to discover the body of a young woman washed up on the shore. Reeling from the trauma, she hits the town again, only to black out behind the wheel with another conquest in the passenger seat. When she’s forced to go to rehab and get sober, she becomes fixated on solving the murder.
But she isn’t the only agent paying attention. Despite Starz marketing the show as a gritty murder mystery about a hot lesbian cop, “Hightown” spends just as much time on Detective Ray Abruzzo (James Badge Dale), a drug crimes agent with a military high fade and a penchant for married strippers. He tells himself he’s working a confidential informant, a string-bean blonde named Renee (Riley Voelkel). Renee is married to one of the top drug dealers in the area, incarcerated beefcake Frankie (Amaury Nolasco), who is suspiciously the only main character other than Jackie of Latinx descent.
A devoted mother and a strategic seductress, Renee could have been a positive portrayal of a sex worker if the rest of the show weren’t strewn with cringeworthy language and blatant fetishization. Any goodwill earned by the character’s agency is drowned out with too many scenes filmed unnecessarily at the strip club and rough sex scenes designed with only shock value in mind. The writers’ true attitudes are made plain as day when Jackie jokes, “I’m supposed to prostitute myself for a ride?” and her friend responds, “Hit the streets, hooker.” (Helpful hint: If you’re going to write sex-worker characters, maybe lay off the slurs.)
The “strung-out white girl” cliche hardly fares any better, and the number of times the words “junkie” and “dope fiend” are thrown around makes it’s hard to argue that “Hightown” actually cares about people with substance issues. At least the 12-step meetings are more realistic than most, with nobody interrupting each other like you often see.
The first trailer for “Hightown” dropped shortly after the news that Starz canceled “Vida,” one of the best Latinx and queer shows on TV. As it also hailed from a woman creator, Tanya Saracho, the network may have felt it had that slot filled. If that’s so, “Hightown” doesn’t come close to filling the void soon to be left by “Vida.” Though Jackie is the face of the show, Ray gets just as much screen time, and every other woman character is a skinny blonde. That may be realistic for Massachusetts but is no longer so for television.
As for the queer elements, Provincetown is basically just a colorful backdrop for this weak Bruckheimer episodic. Jackie gets laid and makes cheesy lesbian jokes, but the gayest thing about this show is that a major plot point hinges around a super moon. In 2020, that ain’t cuttin’ it.
“Hightown” premieres on Starz on Sunday, May 17 at 8 p.m. ET.