Last year, while Netflix was hogging headlines with its bold forays into original programming, the Sundance Channel was on a relatively quiet mission to prove that it also can be a player when it comes to making quality scripted television.
Sundance's impressive résumé included Jane Campion's cryptic miniseries "Top of the Lake," post-prison drama "Rectify" and creepy French zombie saga "The Returned" -- all strikingly distinctive pieces of work that generated positive buzz and critical love.
Now, Sundance looks to keep its winning streak going with "The Red Road," an engrossing, unconventional crime thriller that conveys two visions of contemporary America as played out through the conflict of a small-town police officer and a Native American.
Set in and around Walpole, N.J., the six-part saga opens with Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson) and his fellow cops investigating the disappearance of a visiting college student in the New Jersey mountains, home of a Lenape Mountain American Indian tribe. But soon, their attention is diverted by a hit-and-run tragedy, in which Jensen's wife, Jean (Julianne Nicholson), a recovering alcoholic, becomes a prime suspect.
Desperate to protect Jean and his family, Jensen enters into an ill-advised alliance with Phillip Kopus (Jason Momoa), a member of the Lenape tribe and ex-con whose suspicious return to Walpole threatens to disrupt the fragile peace between his people and the white residents. As Jensen and Kopus become increasingly compromised by one another, old wounds are reopened and lives are wrecked.
"Game of Thrones" fans will certainly recognize Momoa, who played the ill-fated Khal Drogo in the first season of HBO's fantasy epic. A mountain of muscle and menace, he again commands attention here but in a much more low-key manner. It's as if his character realizes he can just as easily subdue his rivals with a cold stare as with a right hook.
While Momoa owns every scene he's in, the overall cast, which includes Tom Sizemore and Tamara Tunie, is also solid. Henderson earns our sympathy even as his misguided maneuvers thrust him deeper into moral rot. Meanwhile, Nicholson delivers an implosive performance as a mentally troubled woman whose life has been scorched by tragedy. She's raw and fragile and pretty much a mess.
Lately, we've seen several TV stories that attempt to portray how a traumatic crime affects the living. While "The Red Road" is not quite in the same league as "True Detective" or "Broadchurch," it is better than most, and it succeeds at drawing dramatic tension not from lots of plot-twist fireworks, but from the long-simmering resentments, private shames and historical injustices embedded in a community few viewers are familiar with.
RETURN ENGAGEMENTS: Thursday and Friday are big nights for returning shows. Among them is buzzy Beltway soap "Scandal" (10 p.m. Thursday, ABC), which is back from its hiatus with the first of eight fresh episodes.
"Scandal," as fans know, moves at a turbocharged pace, and there are no plans to slow things down. In this week's episode, Olivia (Kerry Washington) takes on a demanding new role right around the time Sally (Kate Burton) delivers an announcement that rocks the White House. Of course, when is this TV White House not being rocked?
If you'd rather spend your time ensconced in the Dark Ages, be aware that Thursday also brings the Season 2 opener of "The Vikings" (10 p.m., History), which promises even more brutality, infidelity and infighting. (Think "Scandal" with swords and lances.)
The first episode features an epic brother-vs.-brother clash between the armies of Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) and Rollo (Clive Standen). Our prediction: There will be blood.
Returning with decidedly less clamor and calamity is "Portlandia" (10 p.m. Thursday, IFC). Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein's beloved sketch show will lather the absurdity over 10 episodes in Season 4. How absurd? The opener has Kirsten Dunst dropping by to play a woman haunted by extremely intelligent -- but highly judgmental -- ghosts.
On Friday, the premieres continue as serial-killer thriller "Hannibal" (10 p.m., NBC) returns to kick off its second season. Last year, "Hannibal" was one of prime time's best new shows. We've seen a few episodes from Season 2 already, and the action is even more intense and chilling.
'The red road'
* * * ½
When: 9 p.m. Thursday
Where: Sundance Channel