'Kin': AMC+ Crime Series Tells A Familiar Tale But Is Elevated By A Superb Cast [Review]

Is there room in the TV world for another violent family drama? AMC+ sure hopes so, as the streaming service premieres the intense crime saga “Kin,” a sort of Irish brother to their critically acclaimed “Gangs of London,” which debuted to largely rapturous reviews. With its thick accents, violent betrayals, and setting in the criminal underworld, “Kin” can’t really avoid the comparisons to Gareth Evans’s superior program, but it’s really a much more confined tale, less sprawling and more focused on one family as it makes decisions that lead to tragedies, and it begins to appear that they may get wiped off the face of the entire island by a much stronger force. It’s familiar, but effective material, elevated greatly by its completely committed ensemble, a fascinating assemblage of familiar faces and lesser-known performers, all delivering quality work.

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The draw of “Kin” is likely to be Charlie Cox because of the actor’s connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Daredevil on the Netflix series. However, Cox interestingly cedes a lot of focus in “Kin,” allowing this to be much more than a star vehicle. He plays Michael Kinsella (the surname giving the title double meaning), the returning son of a low-level Irish crime boss named Frank Kinsella (the great Aidan Gillen, most known for “Game of Thrones”). Like so many ex-cons thrown back into fictional worlds of violence, Michael wants to go straight, not realizing the Kinsellas are in a very precarious position. Most of them expect Michael to return to help solidify their small corner of the criminal underworld, so it’s surprising when he asks for a regular job. His main goal? To see his estranged daughter again. And he knows the authorities won’t let him anywhere near her if there’s a whiff of criminal impropriety.

The problem in the Kinsella universe comes down to the control of a more powerful crime lord named Eamon Cunningham (a wonderfully menacing Ciarán Hinds). The show opens with battles for turf between the Cunninghams and the Kinsellas, but it’s pretty clear that this is a David and Goliath situation. Eamon is the Godfather of Dublin; the Kinsellas are a much smaller operation. However, it’s hard to explain that dynamic to the hotheaded young men in the Kinsella family. While Frank is negotiating tenuous peace with Eamon, his sons, Eric (Sam Keeley) and Jimmy (Emmett J. Scanlan), are choosing more violent methods to elevate the Kinsella profile. Eric makes a choice in the series premiere that sets things in motion that could tear apart the Kinsellas under waves of bloodshed. And major decisions fall at the feet of Jimmy’s wife, Amanda (Clare Dunne), who could be the key to everything, and under the watchful eye of the matriarch of this clan, Birdy (Maria Doyle Kennedy). With its complex family betrayals, it reaches for Shakespearean tragedy at times.

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Like so many criminal sagas, “Kin” is mostly about brain vs. brawn. The elders, like Frank, know that going to war with someone like Eamon will only lead to destruction. As he puts it, Eamon could simply put out a call and dozens of enforcers would kill every Kinsella on sight. So how do concepts like retaliation and justice work when the playing field is that uneven? A tragedy takes place in the first episode for which anyone would want some form of vengeance, and the young men of the Kinsella clan can’t accept that they simply must be crushed under Goliath’s foot because that’s the way it has to be. That’s just not fair.

There are times in “Kin” when it feels like the plotting and structure lack urgency. Evans found a way around the amount of dialogue needed for the sprawling cast of characters by punctuating every episode with intensely choreographed action scenes, but “Kin” is much more of a drama—the action takes place in blunt, impactful outbursts more than the stylish escapades of ‘Gangs.’ So it leads to a lot of scenes of people talking about what they want to do, how they’re going to do it, and why they think they should do it. This makes “Kin” sometimes feel overwritten in the sense that there’s a stronger version that feels less calculated and more legitimately dangerous and emotional.

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Having said that, every time it threatens to recede into tedium because of its overwriting, a performer brings it back. Hinds and Gillen are perfectly cast as opposing Godfathers, but the show really belongs to the next generation, giving most of its screen time to the younger Kinsellas. Keely and Scanlan are strong, and Cox will have his fans even if his performance can feel a little too low-key at times, but it’s Clare Dunne who really walks away with “Kin.” She gets the most emotional and intense arc in the first half of the season, and she’s the one who really drives the narrative. The star of “Herself,” Dunne is remarkably present in every moment, taking scenes that could sound clichéd or overwritten and making them feel organic. She’s crafted a character in Amanda that feels completely three-dimensional, someone pushing through tragedy in a manner that sometimes leads to rash, bad decisions, but she makes them all believable. On another network with a stronger profile, “Kin” would get her significant attention.

Hopefully, that could still happen here. The AMC+ story is an emerging one in that most people don’t yet know of its existence even though it’s kicking out esteemed projects like “Gangs of London” and Andrew Haigh’s “The North Water.” It’s respectable that the streaming service has started with pretty high-profile, high-budget shows instead of filler or repurposed programs, but it does feel like they’re getting lost in the increasingly noisy crowd. Maybe in a few years, after AMC+ has solidified a stronger reputation, people will return to shows like “Kin.” Whether this is the show to really push that reputation now or something that people catch up with long down the road, viewers are likely to be satisfied when they do. [B]

“Kin” debuts on AMC+ on September 9.