Briarpatch is a curious case. Not the actual case of murder at the heart of the mystery (that’s never quite as gripping as the series needs it to be), but the series itself, which fashions itself as a hot, dusty desert noir with a freak flag to fly. Unfortunately, the series only ever seems to want to fly it at half-mast, resulting in a show that’s watchable as hell but never quite carves a clear identity out of the hard-boiled genre tropes and creative flourishes it so giddily embraces.
The influences here are loud and clear; echoes of Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, and Elmore Leonard come through in the dialogue, there’s an obvious affection for Twin Peaks, and you can practically feel the sweaty pages of a pulpy paperback between your fingers at every act break. Based on the novel of the same name by Ross Thomas, the series comes from former Grantland critic Andy Greenwald with Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail executive producing and The Bad Batch director Ana Lily Amirpour helming the first episode, setting a colorful, oddball tone for the series, which too often veers towards style over substance, but my what style.
Speaking of which, Rosario Dawson stars as Allegra Dill, a skilled investigator working for a senator in Washington, DC when her sister’s death brings her back to her hometown, San Bonifacio. That’s Saint Disgrace to the locals, in case you thought I was exaggerating about how gleefully Briarpatch embraces the trappings of neo-noirs, from the heightened rat-a-tat dialogue and deadpan delivery to the slightly surreal criminal underworld of Saint Disgrace, where everything seems to exist right on the line of magical realism. It’s not just a decadently named down, San Bonifacio also has a host of zoo animals on the loose, which pop in and out of the action like wild little (or sometimes big and ferocious) reminders of Briarpatch’s strange, slightly left of real-world reality.
Dawson’s poised and precise investigator blows back into town on an icy cold breeze, the tails of her designer pantsuits blowing up little dust storms around the community as she gumshoes around town, digging for answers and finding, of course, more than she bargained for. Dawson has some of the most undersung, megawatt on-screen charisma of her generation and it’s a delight to watch her slip into the long male-dominated archetype of the wounded and world-weary detective.
But the cynical, unflappable cool of the noir detective is perhaps best suited to the film medium, and though Dawson is magnetic, her character’s impassive response to any and all obstacles makes it difficult to invest in the long run. Indeed, we don’t start to see the cracks in Allegra’s veneer until about mid-way through the season, which is a big ask for audiences, especially when the audience doesn’t get to know her sister well enough to care. It’s obvious that Allegra cares, though it’s not especially obvious why considering the constant reminders of their strained relationship and the evident fact that Allegra didn’t seem to know her sister much at all, but that translates through Allegra’s intrepid actions rather than an easy emotional hook for audiences to latch onto.
Thank god then for Mad Men’s Jay R. Ferguson as Jake Spivey, Allegra’s childhood friend/lifelong flirt and the perfect counter to her constant cool. A bam-pow dose of chaotic neutral, Ferguson devours a buffet’s worth of scenery as the former Army man turned not-so-legit arms dealer, and anytime he’s is in the mix, Briarpatch edges closer to fulfilling its true gonzo potential— never more so than when he’s railing lines of coke and dancing around his neon-lit den of depravity, Jake also has history and an ax to grind with the flamboyant crime lord Allegra’s boss is trying to bring down, played by Alan Cumming, who channels his gift for theatricality and camp as a big bad so resolutely evil and deliciously hammy you almost wish he had a mustache to twirl.
In that regard, the ensemble cast is a gift that just keeps giving. Other standouts include Kim Dickens as Chief of Police Eve Reytak, embracing the “everything is bigger in Texas” mentality in a playful, finely-tuned performance that never telegraphs the characters allegiances; Ed Asner as James Staghorn, owner of the town newspaper who’s no favorite of the locals and asks Allegra “How come he treats you like a white man?” with a pinpoint delivery between admiration and annoyance; and Edi Gathegi, who plays an old friend of Allegra’s sister, the local D.A., with casual charm, rocking an arsenal of Hawaiian shirts and an easy grin.
They’re all having so much fun that it’s impossible not to have fun with them, and Briarpatch is at its best when it leans into that breezy, bonkers comedy. It’s a show that’s always fun to watch, can be very funny, but ultimately, it never ties together its best elements enough to pull off the tonal trick it’s trying for. There are moments that should feel shocking, even gutting under the right circumstances, but Briarpatch doesn’t quite land the middle line between its sillier and more serious strokes, making much of the character drama fall flat.
And perhaps the biggest sin for a hard-boiled detective drama, the mystery itself doesn’t have that pulse-pounding, page-turning intrigue that marks the best in the genre. It wouldn’t quite be fair to say I never cared about who killed Allegra’s sister, but it’s certainly too easy to forget to care in the midst of the wildcards and weirdness.
But its faults are easy enough to forgive because Briarpatch is an easy and entertaining watch with a firecracker cast, kooky character, and funky world. The joy of the series isn’t in unearthing the mysteries, but unfolding the map of San Bonifacio and finding new, weird pockets along the way. It’s enough to make you want to book a stay, even if you know the room service guy got mauled by a dang tiger.