Tokyo Vice

3 out of 5

Created by: J.T. Rogers

covers season 1

If you’re hooked on Tokyo Vice’s first few episodes – as you aboslutely should be – an average rating might seem puzzling. And at that point, I would have agreed with you: the cold open of American journalist Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort) insinuating himself, with dangerous confidence, into a negotiation with yakuza members and police detective Katagiri (Ken Watanabe) is handled with fly-on-the-wall verve that immediately sets us on edge, and nigh guarantees our interest – how did we get here? Rewinding to Jake’s preparation to join prominent Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shinbun – and as their first American writer, to boot – we get to experience the incredible stresses of that process, as well as the upward slope Jake has to climb even after getting hired, to prove he’s not just some tourist gaijin.

As the pieces are put together – Jake is inevitably put on the low-stakes beat, but cannot suppress an interest in the criminal and police activity he constantly sees on the streets, and the political games between the two elements he picks up on, and inserts himself into with incredibly bold conversational tactics – the promise of the opening scene is further secured. And ratcheted up on: Jake’s full abosrption into his world is paralleled with evenings at clubs and hostess joints, which puts him in the middle of an odd triangle between fledgling yakuza member Sato (Show Kasamatsu), and Samantha (Rachel Keller), another American, working as a hostess in Kabukicho.

…And here’s where the show starts to lose its footing a bit, and ultimately stumbles under the weight of TV filler. Though Sato and Samantha’s stories absolutely cross over with Jake’s – there’s a gang war brewing, and Sato’s on one side of that; Samantha is casually involved with Sato, which intermingles with Jake’s interest both in her and that world – Tokyo Vice takes the cue of hostess clubs and romantic subplots and its HBO-lack of borders and dives a bit into Jake’s random sexual encounters; and character arcs for Rebecca and Sato are not uninteresting by any means, but they take us away from where we started, and in rather unclear directions. This pattern, unfortunately, continues: the links to Jake’s tale remain loose, and we’re mostly tied to the others by forced incident; along those lines, Rebecca’s / Sato’s subplots are very separate things, intended to give them arcs, but not effectively circling back around to the whole. Again, not uninteresting by any means, just very clearly unecessary. Conceptually extend this to some of the dialogue: in order to somewhat justify the straying focus, people occasionally have to be made to say some fluffy, uncharacteristic things, further watering down the show’s initial effectiveness.

Every time we start to focus on Jake, the police, and the yakuza, this discrepancy is more apparent: the R-rating of sexy times feels pointless; the way the subplots do not connect with one another frustrates. If the show hadn’t drilled down so hard on the angles with which it started, it could be pitched more as just exploring the Japan of 1999 from the perspective of this expatriate-ish American, and these asides would seem more suited. But that’s not the show’s main drive – we keep circling back to the yakuza plot, and big advances in that story are the season’s bookends, and big beats.

To that point, there are some hints that the somewhat external nature of these other storylines – Jake’s sexcapades aside – is maybe purposeful, given how the season ends, setting us up for more tight ties next season, but this is another flaw of the show: while, on the one hand, I very, very much approve and encourage shows to aim for multi-season stories, and not just go for broke for a single season, that also means Tokyo Vice’s writers could have more succinctly structured this season to give us an ebb and flow. Instead, we start very strongly, and then ping-pong around for the back half of the season, winding up in a good spot, but one that would have more impact if the opening wasn’t so severe.

This does, of course, mean that I’m very much looking forward to a second season, and I wouldn’t hesitate from recommending the first – except to caution that it ends up functioning more like usual, filler-filled TV at some point than the prestige television its general high quality production, solid acting, and incredible writing of its first few episodes suggests.