CS Review: Monica Raymund Is Flawless in Starz’s Dark & Gritty Hightown
I was fortunate enough to watch the first two episodes of Starz’s new crime drama series Hightown in advance of Sunday night’s premiere and was not at all surprised by Monica Raymund’s flawless performance as the dark, messy, and queer Jackie Quiñones who lives in Cape Cod’s famous LGBTQ+ tourist destination of Provincetown, Massachusetts. Raymund has already proven herself as a leading performer, especially after her fan-favorite role as Gabby Dawson on NBC’s Chicago Fire, and as much as I loved Gabby, Jackie brings out a whole new side to Raymund who completely embraces and shines in the new role alongside a solid cast of characters.
Set in the beautiful but bleak Cape Cod and created by Rebecca Cutter, Hightown follows one woman’s journey to sobriety, overshadowed by an unfolding murder investigation. Jackie Quiñones (Raymund), a hard-partying National Marine Fisheries Service agent, has her life thrown into disarray when she discovers a body on the beach, another casualty of Cape Cod’s opioid epidemic. To deal with the trauma, Jackie takes the first steps toward sobriety— until she becomes convinced it’s up to her to solve the murder. Now at odds with sergeant Ray Abruzzo (James Badge Dale), an abrasive but effective member of the Cape Cod Interagency Narcotics Unit, Jackie starts to spiral. And she’s not alone; Ray himself crosses more lines than he can count in the name of the investigation. The two of them, along with everyone else connected to the murder, all circle each other, and as their lives crash together, we’re reminded just how complicated, and deadly, our addictions can be.
Hightown doesn’t waste any time propelling you into the story with the first scene setting the series’ overall dark tone. Krista Collins (Crystal Lake Evans), a former addict 42 days clean is sitting with her friend Sherry Henry (Masha King) in a car, chatting away and waiting for Sherry’s dealer to show up. Krista leaves the car to pee and the act tends up saving her life as a couple of guys show up and kill Sherry, shooting her before bagging her up and putting her body in the trunk of her car before one of the men drives it and Sherry’s body away as Krista hides in the dark, horrified by what she’s witnessed.
Then we meet Jackie, hungover on an NMFS speedboat with her superior agent Ed Murphy (Mike Pniewski). After her shift, and throughout the first episode, we witness Jackie taking her “free-wheeling” lifestyle to a new level, including literally drinking and driving, snorting coke in the middle of the street, hooking up with girls visiting Ptown (and consistently telling her hookups upfront that she’s in law enforcement, which doubles-down as an interesting parallel to Ray as we see him hide his identity in order to trick potential key players into becoming informants for him — more on that later). Jackie seems to be well-known in the area in and out of the LGBTQ+ community, with one of her acquaintances being Junior McCarthy (Shane Harper), a fisherman and former alcoholic/addict reaching 90 days of sobriety as he works towards being a better father and is more involved with our poor dead girl than we first realize.
After her latest one night stand, Jackie is horrified as she discovers the dead body of Sherry washed ashore, officially setting the stage for the introduction of Sergeant Ray Abruzzo and his partner Alan Saintille (Dohn Norwood) and the trajectory of the entire storyline. The relationship between Jackie and Ray starts off with some tension as Ray brings up how back in the day fishermen were bringing in bails of weed under the NMFS’ noses, and Jackie responds how that was “40 years ago.” Ray clearly doesn’t hold much regard for Jackie, but their paths will inevitably cross again down the road as the dead woman begins to haunt Jackie.
Everything comes to a head for our lead party girl during Ptown’s massive Carnival celebration. On a reckless bender spurned on by her own struggles with addiction and alcoholism and especially after coming across Sherry’s dead body, Jackie takes enough shots and snorts enough coke to blackout, crashing her car with her latest hookup in tow who ends up getting injured and sent to the hospital. Jackie wakes up in jail, bailed out by Ed, and facing potential felony charges not to mention the likelihood of losing her job.
While Jackie weighs her options and considers Ed’s advice about going to rehab before her court date, we learn that Sherry was Ray’s informant for his opioid drug-ring operation involving Frankie Cuevas (Amaury Nolasco), who is serving time in the Massachusetts State Correctional Facility. Ray forces Renee Segna (Riley Voelkel), the mother of Frankie’s child, into becoming an informant for him — as our impulsive sergeant begins to develop an obsession with her — and Renee ultimately leads them to the man who pulled the trigger on Sherry, one of Frankie’s crew members. Unbeknownst to Ray, Frankie tells Renee to get close to the cop during her visitation with him, and unbeknownst to nearly everyone, our seemingly soft-hearted Junior has unfortunately found himself stuck under Frankie’s thumb, too. In a subtle, almost depressing twist, we discover a fingernail on Junior’s boat who quickly gets rid of the evidence, confirming he was the one who attempted to get rid of Sherry’s body for Frankie. What once was easy, dirty work for Junior while he was high has now become difficult for him in his newfound sobriety and he wants out completely, but Frankie tells Junior he will only ever be done working for him when he says so.
As the case continues, Jackie does end up going to rehab where the facility’s therapist seamlessly sees right through Jackie, including her relatable use of using dark humor to try to laugh away what’s right in front of her — she is a broken mess with unresolved issues who needs help or her life is going to end up in shambles. She ends up staying at the rehab longer than expected as three days turns into eight. Jackie has developed PTSD from her encounter with the dead body, and her battle with sobriety and the trauma of that lasting memory fuels nightmares of Sherry warning her to “watch out, tide’s coming in,” as well as an existential crisis as to what her purpose is.
When Jackie figures out that Krista, our living witness, was at the same rehab after seeing her photo and is able to put two and two together thanks to a matching necklace Sherry had been wearing, Jackie feels like she has finally found what that purpose is, and it’s to find Krista and help her, as well as to get justice for Sherry. By the end of the second episode, the connections between our main players have been all but revealed between those inserting themselves into this dangerous world and investigation, those impacted by it, and others, like Junior or Renee, who wish they could get out of the storm but find themselves trapped. The end of the second episode leaves us questioning what Junior (who, at his core, appears to be a good man ready for real change) will do to his friend Jackie when he learns she’s determined to find Krista. Jackie leaves the safe space of inpatient rehab to do it, diving headfirst into the abyss all while trying to stay sober.
Raymund is absolutely the anchor to the addiction-focused crime story, but she is surrounded by an equally phenomenal cast all passionately playing three-dimensional characters who are fascinating to watch as all of their layers are peeled back as the mystery unravels. The interlinking stories cleverly connect the ensemble cast, teasing an inevitable showdown between many of the flawed characters who have been pulled even further into a very dark and treacherous world. The murder investigation serves as a catalyst for many of them, but the story is far more about the lives of these characters — their choices, their actions, their addictions — and that big battle between right and wrong and how those are often blurred together.
Hightown grabs you from the very first scene and the introduction of Raymund’s free-wheeling, booze-addled, and coke-addicted Jackie seals the deal. The dynamic cast who dig deep into their fleshed-out characters alongside smart storytelling takes viewers down a heavy but intriguing path as we wait to see if the murder will be solved, if Jackie can maintain her sobriety and save Krista, and how this tangled web of addiction, lies, and violence will inevitably come crashing down on all of them.
New episodes of Hightown, an official selection of the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, will air every Sunday night on Starz, and will also be available to stream on the network’s platform and via Add-on’s on other streaming services.