After the greed of studio bosses led to what The Simpsons would call a “scary couple of hours,” crime and mystery TV is back this year in a big way, from a chilly new season of True Detective to Clive Owen as a retired Sam Spade to Sofia Vergara as legendary cocaine queenpin Griselda Blanco. Amid the embarrassment of riches, however, one of the decade’s most underrated crime yarns quietly gears up for its third and final season, the perfect time to catch up.
In an era where most premium cable makes at least some stabs at awards bait, Starz has stayed solidly populist, for good and for ill, with its biggest cash cow the pulpy 50 Cent-produced “Power” universe of shows or the time-travel bodice-ripper “Outlander.” “Hightown,” which premiered a couple months into the coronavirus pandemic, is something different.
The dark side of both a quaint small town and an idyllic resort is one of the oldest tropes in the book, from “Twin Peaks” to “The White Lotus.” “Hightown” adds a new dimension, however, with its setting of Provincetown, the iconic queer hotspot on the tip of Cape Cod. Actual geography situates Provincetown at the far end of the Cape, but it has symbolic weight in the show as well: as the title suggests, it’s largely about the opioid epidemic spreading its claws throughout New England, including the farthest point you can hit without falling into the sea.
Our heroine, National Marine Fisheries Service Agent Jackie Quinones (Monica Raymund), is herself a 20th-century twist on a classic noir anti-hero. She gets too personally connected to cases, drinks and does drugs too much and fucks people she shouldn’t, like her forebears in the genre. But Jackie’s also a Latina lesbian, the kind of character an oversensitive writer might feel the need to make a flawless paragon rather than, to put it bluntly, a total mess like Jackie. Indeed, her skills as a sleuth are another layer to her pathology, as she gets involved in an investigation of murders and organized crime that have nothing to do with her actual law-enforcement mandate as a way of displacing her addictions.
Like any good noir protagonist, Jackie’s also a consummate outsider. Not only does she stand out in the heavily white Provincetown and broader Cape, she actually lives there, one of those places like Hollywood or Washington that we assume no one is actually “from.”
It also means the show, with its Dominican and Cape Verdean villains, avoids evoking potentially racist tropes of sinister non-whites invading the little seaside patch of heaven—Jackie’s not white either and she also understands the town’s imperfections already. She’s an ideal viewpoint figure through which to explore this darkness in paradise; her addictions and her outsider status both mean she lacks the illusions of people who only come to party for Pride or the Fourth of July.
Boston, of course, has a rich tradition of noir and mystery, as befitting a city of tight-lipped tough guys and intimidating Catholic architecture. The region’s rambling rural landscapes, meanwhile, have their own spooky vibe that captured the imagination of the likes of Lovecraft and Stephen King.
Not so for its sunny resort towns, which have always been sort of the minor leagues of beach noir compared to heavy hitters like southern California and Florida. It’s not for lack of material, either—Provincetown’s darker historical legacy includes the notorious, newly-solved “Lady of the Dunes” murder case and a Manson-esque serial killer known as the “Cape Cod vampire.”
Growing up, my younger brother and I only knew the Cape during the summer months, when we visited as guests of my grandparents. It wasn’t until my honeymoon in October 2012 that I set foot in Provincetown in the off-season for the first time and I really grasped something I intellectually knew, that this place kept going after I left. The slight chill in the air and the largely empty streets added a vague danger to this understanding, like the town itself was some great, hibernating beast that would wake up if we made too much noise. “Hightown” gets that vibe and captures it, and what is noir itself but a vibe spun into a good story?