Television Review: The Bridge

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Television Review: The Bridge

     The Bridge was just picked up for a second season. I’m far too used to betting on TV underdogs, the heart-shredding feeling I get from the tweets or headlines that regret to inform me how an exciting and original piece of programming just got murdered in the cradle. Plus, one of the actresses on the show favorited my tweet, so this is all officially exciting.

     An American-set remake of a Danish/Swedish series, The Bridge duplicates the original’s premise for much of the first season; a gruesome scene is discovered on the bridge connecting two nations, namely the remains of an American judge and a young Mexican woman placed exactly on the halfway juncture of the Bridge of the Americas connecting Juarez and El Paso. While this second season pickup excites me purely on the basis of the loose ends that its first season leaves swaying, I’m curious to see what the show has planned as it continues its absorbing, and intermittently frustrating, struggle to come out of the shadows of the TV it’s clearly trying to equal. Not just the original Danish series, either; the first 13 episodes of The Bridge call back to the season-long murder mystery arcs that Veronica Mars triumphed with and Dexter beat to an excruciating death, the confounded expectations of mystery and the rich, multifarious world of The Wire, the arid noir and blackest-of-comedy of Breaking Bad, and the grimness of fellow FX series The Shield and Sons of Anarchy. Even Miss Bala, the livewire 2011 Mexican feature film in which a beauty pageant contestant gets dragged into a nightmarish cartel war, lends its director and star to this show’s pilot. FX is HBO and Showtime’s plucky little brother in the premium drama game. It has the money and the freedom to produce incredible boundary-bending work, but it whiffs its fair share; for every The Americans and The Shield, we get a Lights Out and Dirt (don’t recognize those last two? Exactly). Additionally, FX has a record of allowing seniority trump quality in its long-running dramas; both Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me were kept on life support far too long to sustain even a spirited hatewatch.

     So what to make of The Bridge? Well, the good news: it’s good. And it might become great. The cast in particular is joyously superb. The main duo, El Paso homicide detective Sonya Cross and her Juarez counterpart, Marco Ruiz, played respectively by Diane Kruger and Demien Bichir, inhabit a thorny, respectful chemistry that the show takes its time to build, earning the two’s eventual bond during the course of the investigation. Kruger, for the most part, overcomes the two natural roadblocks in playing a convincing socially inept (due to her unnamed position on the autism spectrum) Texas detective -- her extreme beauty (she played Helen of Troy once, guys) and her German accent. Neither one is entirely erased but Kruger gives Cross a subtly wounded, stilted non-grace that feels naturalistic to watch, even if it still feels like Kruger’s getting her best feel for the character. Bichir’s Ruiz struggles with his personal and professional morality; in the moments when Ruiz’ demons score a hit, the the actor’s broad expressive brow trembles and his flinty voice explodes. The supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches; Matthew Lillard sinks deep away from type as the alcoholic addict reporter Daniel Frye, whose mysterious connection to the bridge murder provides the pilot’s most nail-biting moment of tension, and Emily Rios (favorited me! Guys!) does typically excellent work as Frye’s partner at the El Paso Times whose lesbianism runs up against the rejection of her family back in Juarez. Catalina Sandino Moreno lends beautiful gravitas to what could be the thankless role of Ruiz’s slighted wife, and Ted Levine continues his quiet journey as TV’s best ace-in-the-hole character actor, playing Sonya’s lieutenant and mentor.

     But to understand The Bridge, and to prime yourself for season 1’s most gut-churning moments, the focus must be on the criminals.

     The show’s often-lurid focus on Juarez’s criminality hews uncomfortably close to American misbeliefs of Mexico as a narco-overun moral wasteland, and I’m hoping that the show can gain more dramatic ground in season 2 by not relaying on easy tropes. Still, the criminal underworld (and sometimes overworld) of The Bridge is, thus far, ludicrously entertaining. Murderous drug runners banter with their accountants while they watch trapeze artists rehearse. Lyle Lovett pops up as the cartel’s Saul Goodman, bringing a casserole dish full of cash to a grieving widow, played by Annabeth Gish, to persuade her into going full Botwin and continue her late husband’s trafficking operation. A lady smuggler demands to receive oral sex from her new male flunky in an SUV as a contract’s seal. A skinny marble-mouthed creep locks a girl in his trailer and burns her clothes, but not for the reason you think. Subplots slide in and out, and no character is safe. Cross and Ruiz beat a path through institutional corruption and base human brutality, and through it all I was entranced. Proceeding from reveal to reveal, The Bridge tells a messy and affecting tale of the people who hustle and die in the zigzag seams between worlds. While Juarez’ history of feminicidio is shameful, and it’s hard to digest as fact let alone fiction, when The Bridge stumbles and slips attempting to produce quality television out of its considerable ancestry and problematic subject matter, it’s only learning to walk. It’ll get there. See you in summer 2014.

     Check out the trailer for Season 2 of the The Bridge from TVFanatic.com below

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