This great HBO crime drama is still overlooked. Here’s why you should watch it now

A man and a woman talk in Tokyo Vice.

An unexpected surge of support has launched HBO’s popular Tokyo Vice, currently airing its second season, to unlikely streaming heights on Max.

Starring Ansel Elgort as Jake Adelstein, the real-life American reporter who in the late 1990s became the first foreigner to work at Tokyo’s newspaper of record, the Yomiuri Shimbun, the crime drama is a consistent, intelligent addition to HBO’s lineup that stands a chance of going the distance amid the network’s current sci-fi/fantasy-heavy rotation.

Ansel Elgort is an unlikely success

Ansel Elgort and Rachel Keller in Tokyo Vice.

Elgort, a delicate, slightly awkward presence whose acting career has always been a mixed bag, is the unexpected key to the show’s success. Six-foot-three inches, with a theater kid’s self-consciousness and an elongated, gawky stride, he sticks out like a sore thumb among the show’s almost entirely East Asian cast.

Initially, his outsider status is a sharp disadvantage, but as he consistently secures opportunities rare for early-career Japanese reporters and works himself into the confidence of organized crime detectives like Katagiri (the always-strong Ken Watanabe), the show’s subtextual message becomes clear – Jake’s foreignness is not his handicap but his secret weapon, rendering him a lost-lamb figure who Japanese locals ache to take under their wings. (This is despite the fact that the real Adelstein studied in Japan and is fluent in Japanese – Elgort, to his credit, also learned the language for the show. Elgort’s Jake uses faux-broken Japanese and a succession of Western accents to pose as a hapless tourist the better to chase stories.)

Katagiri tells him semi-sarcastically, “You’re like the son I never had,” and though it’s meant to be a dig, one senses the reality in the sometimes unfair leg-up Jake gains over his native Japanese colleagues. It’s a smart, subtle approach to the “white savior” brush with which one could easily tar the show.

Broadening horizons in the second season

A view of Nagano from season 2 of Tokyo Vice.

J.T. Rogers, the Tony-winning playwright whose previous plays Blood and Gifts and Oslo have plumbed West Asian politics with a journalist’s aplomb, turns his attention to East Asia as the creator and showrunner of Tokyo Vice. Despite the show’s name, the obviously expanded budget for Tokyo Vice’s second season has allowed Rogers to venture further afield than Tokyo itself to luxe shoreline villas and the “Japanese Alps” of Nagano, which hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Expanding its horizons has served the show well, though the first season’s relatively confined boundaries never seemed claustrophobic. This is a story that is equally comfortable on large and small canvases.

Intimate but globe-spanning stories

Rachel Keller in season 2 of Tokyo Vice.

That’s fitting, since despite the show’s umbrella focus on the violence and dominion of rival yakuza families, its real interest is small, personal stories that nonetheless span thousands of miles. Tokyo Vice’s Jake is fully at home in his new country, even becoming skilled in Judo – a welcome justification for how the skinny American manages to hold his own against gangsters who sometimes get a little too close for comfort. But Jake’s interest in Japan may have more to do with the simple fact that Japan isn’t Columbia, Missouri, where he grew up, and his avoidance of a personal crisis involving his sister (Sarah Sawyer) and parents (Jessica Hecht and Danny Burstein, Broadway regulars) sometimes seems juvenile and driven by an irrational denial of his authentic self. (Jacob is his middle name – his real name is Joshua, but only folks back home use it by the time we meet him.)

Jake hops heedlessly from bed to bed in a way that Tokyo Vice admirably avoids making the least bit sexy. He can run as far as he wants, climb a ladder no one thought he’d climb, but he is still, ultimately, a lost kid. Seeing a man being thrown off a building to land on the pavement only feet from him, he is reduced to shouting, “Fuck – Fuck!” – the best ending line for an HBO episode in recent memory, certainly since Succession went off the air.

By contrast, Jake’s friend, source, and occasional makeout partner Samantha (Rachel Keller, so excellent on Fargo), owner of a “hostess club” where wealthy men pay beautiful women for drink and conversation, is on the run for a far more legitimate reason. A former Mormon missionary who defrauded her church to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars and is still on the run from her oppressive Utah family, Samantha has been too close to the wrong side of the law for too long, and she is given the luxury of few female supporting characters on TV get – to make morally questionable, misguided decisions. Samantha is a stellar and intriguing character, and Keller seizes the role with a gilt-edged authority and never lets go.

A strong Japanese ensemble

Shô Kasamatsu in Tokyo Vice season 2.

Watanabe’s Detective Katagiri is so stoic and honorable — a yakuza calls him “the only incorruptible man I have ever met” — that he would more than likely be the main character on a network version of Tokyo Vice. He proves here that a truly selfless character is always more interesting when he’s more incidental to the main thrust of the story.

Aside from Watanabe, among the Japanese cast, the standout is Shô Kasamatsu, as Sato, a yakuza whose rapid rise through the ranks parallels Jake’s in fascinating ways. He and Keller’s Samantha dance around one another in a dangerous waltz, occasionally sexual, occasionally antagonistic, and one remains perpetually concerned that they will lacerate one another with their glass-cutting jawlines.

Tokyo Vice still has that Michael Mann touch

Ansel Elgort and Ken Watanabe in Tokyo Vice.

It’s the show’s aesthetics that ultimately keep you watching. The pilot was directed by Michael Mann, and the subsequent episodes in both seasons one and two benefit from echoing his neon-soaked nighttime landscapes best utilized in Mann’s Thief (1981) and the Orientalism-avoiding view of the far East in his Blackhat (2015). The standout director since Mann’s departure has been Josef Kubota Wladyka (previously of The Terror and Fear the Walking Dead), one of many writers and directors on Tokyo Vice of Japanese descent.

Tokyo Vice season 2 is currently streaming on Max. The finale airs April 4.