The cast includes Vincent D’Onofrio as Johnson’s rival, a vicious Italian mob boss; Giancarlo Esposito as the smooth-talking politician Powell; and smaller roles played by Paul Sorvino, Chazz Palminteri, Luis Guzman, and Erik LaRay Harvey. And it combines a perfectly appointed 1960s period piece, à la Mad Men, with a wide-scope crime drama that’s imbued with vital American history, à la Boardwalk Empire.
But for all its terrific elements, Godfather of Harlem—whose second episode (out of 10) aired this past Sunday—rarely rises beyond the level of “pretty good.” Whitaker is unsurprisingly terrific, handling all the notes of the show's complicated main character with power and grace. And much of the supporting cast is his equal: D’Onofrio is always worth watching, never quite doing what you’d expect him to do—he makes his Vincent “Chin” Gigante character into a meanie with a real chip on his shoulder, and we understand why. Esposito is also great as the smarmy political maneuverer, but Erik LaRay Harvey is barely used, relegated to the background as one of Johnson’s right-hand men. I haven’t seen enough in the first five episodes to know whether Sorvino and Palminteri have anything bigger than cameo roles, but presumably they do.
In other words, the crime stuff in Godfather of Harlem is mostly dialed in. The action is chiefly about who controls the flow of heroin (referred to by Bumpy and his team by its African name, “dooji”) into Harlem, and how Bumpy’s crew faces off with the Italians over turf and matters of pride. But there’s just not quite as much of this stuff as I’m craving from a show like this. Instead, the subplots, of which there are several, bog the show down and flatten it out; as such, the show ping-pongs between some exciting (and sometimes pretty brutally violent) crime stuff and awfully generic interpersonal drama.
The worst subplot concerns Gigante’s daughter Stella (Lucy Fry) and her surreptitious romance with a Black musician, Teddy (Luce’s Kelvin Harrison Jr., similarly irritating here). Their forbidden love is meant to be a metaphor for the civil rights movement at large, which means they’re symbols rather than characters, and thus are largely uninteresting. Teddy’s song, “Rise,” is meant to be a powerful protest anthem, but it’s both a forgettably ho-hum tune and wholly out-of-character for the time period; it sounds more like a Lenny Kravitz track used in a Microsoft Surface Pro commercial.
Other subplots concern Bumpy’s wife, Mayme (Ilfenesh Hadera), who seems to exist mostly to look disapprovingly at Bumpy every time he comes home from doin’ crimes. As the series goes on, she’s revealed to have some sneaky goings-on of her own, but in the first five episodes, the character has yet to fully spring to life. And Bumpy’s relationship with Elise, a heroin addict, has some interesting threads, but the intense drama of their relationship feels diagrammed by the script rather than actively expressed on screen.
I’m making it sound worse than it is. As I said earlier, the show mostly bobs along at a level of “pretty good,” and every now and then it crests higher than that. The trio of Whitaker, D’Onofrio, and Esposito are enough to make anything worth watching, and they’re matched by a superb Nigél Thatch as Malcolm X (the actor reprises his role from Selma); Thatch's solid work renders the historic elements of the show believable and exciting. And having seen half of the first season, I’m intrigued to see where the show goes from here—the 1960s Harlem it conjures is absorbing and visually interesting. I just hope it maintains focus on Bumpy and the space that exists between his conflict with the Italians and his role in providing stability and safety for his "hometown" of Harlem. The peripheral characters, whenever Bumpy's not on screen, are a distraction.
Godfather of Harlem plays on Epix, a relatively low-profile network in the age of Prestige TV, but one that’s worth double-checking to see if your cable subscription includes. Epix gave a home to the terrific Perpetual Grace, LTD earlier this year, and also has the Alfred-the-Butler origin show Pennyworth and the well-regarded Get Shorty and Berlin Station. I don’t think Godfather of Harlem is going to be enough to boost Epix into the top tier, but it continues their upward trend of worthwhile programming. If the idea of a history-crime show set in 1960s Harlem is something that your TV-scent receptors twitch for (as they do mine), Godfather of Harlem will—mostly—give you what you’re looking for.
Godfather of Harlem airs Sundays on Epix.