Though the setup of FX’s new drama series The Bridge has a litany of familiar crime show elements — a straight-laced female detective paired with a laid-back male cop, for starters — over its first few episodes it unfolds into a beautiful patchwork of sprawling storytelling that is linked through a serial killer with political agenda, but not beholden to it. The Bridge is adapted from a Scandinavian drama of the same premise, where detectives from two different border towns must work together when a body is found severed on the borderline itself. In FX’s version, the border is the United States and Mexico, and the towns El Paso and Juarez, the latter being a notorious site of drugs and violence, particularly against women. The serial killer who left the severed body has a statement to make about the crimes in Juarez and about immigration, and the story goes deep when exploring it. Hit the jump for more on why you should, no matter what, watch past the pilot.
The immediate turn-off of The Bridge for many may be the cliche of the relationship between El Paso PD detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) and her Mexican counterpart Marco Ruiz (Demian Bichir). She’s a by-the-books intense cop who has Aspergers (which is not mentioned on the show but it alluded to, and is included in the series’ promotional materials), which feels a great deal like Dr. Brennan from Bones, or even Carrie Mathison from Homeland (not the “by the books” part, but the unfortunate idea that “a female must be literally crazy to be this good”). Ruiz, for his part, is a good guy — he doesn’t take bribes, he understands people and helps them — but he battles his own demons, mostly, his womanizing (he is married with three kids).
You get the idea. Now get past it. Though Cross and Ruiz’s partnership is a mainstay of the pilot episode, the show begins expanding almost instantly, following a myriad of other characters who start with tangential relationships to the crime, and end up as integral to it. Cross and Ruiz and brought together when an anti-immigration judge is found dumped and sliced in half at the border. A twist leads the duo back to Juarez, before more deaths lead them back to El Paso. The killer is quick, prolific, and has an obvious agenda, which he (or she) communicates through an arrogant local reporter (Matthew Lillard) with a substance abuse problem, who eschews police help as much as he can so that he can get the scoop on the killer.
On the outskirts of the central premise is Charlotte Millright (Annabeth Gish), the widow of a wealthy El Paso rancher who had many dark secrets that she begins to uncover after his death, as well as the rogue social worker Steven Linder (Thomas M. Wright), a loner with mysterious habits that suggest he is either the best kind of Samaritan, or the worst kind of evil.
Thomas Wright (who is channeling Wolverine’s facial hair in the series) was most recently seen in Sundance’s excellent crime drama Top of the Lake, and The Bridge is definitely a fine entry into the (very) Slow TV movement that series like Top of the Lake excelled in and have helped define. For all of its initial faults (and mumbling — fans of the HBO series Luck will feel right at home), The Bridgescores points for throwing viewers into the story immediately, and by populating the writing staff with novelists and short story writers who make the drama unfold like a novel. The first few chapters can be difficult to get into. Keep going.
The show also captures the southwest’s stark landscape in a way reminiscent of Breaking Bad, and is directed in that show’s same sort of cinematic style that does an excellent job at wrapping viewers up wholly in its world. The production has been true to the region by having conversations south of the U.S. border actually occur in Spanish — the show is definitely not for those who abhor subtitles. But these are the kinds of things that make The Bridge feel authentic in the story it’s trying to tell, particularly when it comes to illustrating the horrors of Juarez, the reasons behind them, and the need for change.
Like the best kinds of dramas that focus on a central crime, The Bridge populates its landscape with enough characters and interest beyond the serial killer plot to suggest that things could keep going beyond a single season. Though the series unfolds slowly, it doesn’t rely on a Disguise / Crime Of The Week like The Americans often did; and with its expansive cast, it has more places to go with its story. In a summer filled with forgettable television or the umpteenth season of series that are long past their prime, The Bridge is a refreshing and thoughtful entry to what has already been an excellent year for Slow TV.
The Bridge premieres Wednesday, July 10th and 10 p.m.