Read a synopsis of FX’s The Bridge, and you expect yet another imaginatively lazy TV serial killer story, or at best an attempt to one-up AMC’s The Killing. A woman’s bisected corpse is found on a bridge connecting El Paso, Texas, to Juarez, Mexico, and cops from both countries join forces to track what seems to be a Zodiac-style lunatic.
Some of the main characters initially come off as riffs on TV types. There’s a driven American detective named Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger), who might remind you of Homeland’s Carrie Mathison: she's smart and driven, but her Asperger's syndrome makes her socially clumsy, and she has a penchant for picking up strange men in bars. There’s a Mexican detective, Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir of A Better Life), who’s a loving but troubled family man, and the sort of droll, laid-back veteran who we know will make a lively partner for Sonya. There’s drawling older lawman in a ten-gallon hat (the great Ted Levine, of everything) who’d be right at home in a Sam Peckinpah Western, but who’s tasked with running an office and having to chastise subordinates for not doing their jobs. There’s a stressed-out recent widow named Charlotte Millright (Annabeth Gish of The X-Files) who learns dark secrets about her rich businessman husband, who died of a heart attack on the night the body that was discovered on the bridge.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take long for this drama to reveal itself as something more than a soapy murder mystery with Tex-Mex stylings. The Bridge is a grubby, oddly mournful tale of the relationship between haves and have-nots of the U.S. and Mexico: a sprawling yet low-key drama about how money, drugs, tourism, prostitution, and deep-seated historical resentments lock nations in a symbiotic relationship in which it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s the parasite and who’s the host. Not everything in the series works. There are a few lackluster characterizations and performances, and scenes in which supposedly hardcore professionals seem more naïve than they might be in life, presumably to make it easier for The Bridge to set up little lessons in sociology, history, and politics. But this show’s worth watching regardless of how you feel about its bits and pieces. It’s an attempt to make an epic on an indie-film budget.
As such, it marks a developmental milestone in the still-young history of FX. This cable channel was once content to air clever riffs on such durable TV genres as the gangster show (Sons of Anarchy), the Western (Justified), and the spy thriller (The Americans), or give offbeat comic artists their own creative sandboxes to play in (Louie, Wilfred, Archer). In The Bridge, the serial killer story is a narrative clothesline on which to hang a statement about How We Live Now. At times, it may remind you a bit of John Sayles’s classic Lone Star, and portions of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (itself a remake of an overseas miniseries). Although the constant threat of violence looms over everything, this is the network’s most lifelike drama, filled with incidents that could happen and people who might exist.
Based on a same-named European show set on the border between Sweden and Denmark, The Bridge was developed by crime show veterans Elwood Reed and Meredith Stiehm (who penned some of the most memorable episodes of Homeland). The Bridge is also a rare series with a powerful sense of place. Where AMC's southwestern crime drama Breaking Bad portrays Mexico as a forbidding extraterrestrial landscape shot through a hellish red-brown filter, this show makes Mexico look like, well, Mexico. If you’ve spent any time in the border area, you’ll sense that this series is the work of people who’ve studied more than movies. The trailers, the trucks, the scrubby terrain, the endless expanses of highway, the cantinas and taquerías with their ever-present strings of Christmas tree bulbs, all have the ring of observed truth.
So do little behavioral touches, such as the way in which a shady lawyer (Lyle Lovett, looking like a handsomer Grim Reaper in a big white hat), who represented the late Mr. Millright, visits his widow on the day of the memorial and presents her with a pot that supposedly contains three-bean salad, yet pointedly declines to take his hat off in her presence — a decision that seems thoughtless until you realize he’s there to intimidate her. The show is astute in showing how smart people of all ethnicities use cultural stereotypes of themselves to confound, deceive, and otherwise gain the upper hand. It also has a Coen brothers’–like talent for building character through vernacular dialogue, as when a pushy local cop tries to join Sonya and Marco’s investigation and is rebuffed, then says, “I think I feel a migraine comin’ on! It’s a headbuster!” I can’t speak to the veracity of the show’s legal and political details, but if it’s as credible as its portrait of daily newspapering — via a drug-addled but ferociously resourceful investigative reporter named Daniel Frye (Matthew Lillard) — we’re in good hands. (Frye’s editor is overheard warning another reporter, “File anything over 850 and I’ll cut it to size myself.”) I love shows that do their homework but don’t feel the need to constantly remind you of all the homework they’ve done.
Running beneath all the crime scene investigations, oddly insinuating small talk, and occasional bursts of savage violence is a sense of despair for how people and institutions and countries prize money and comfort above all else, and don’t particularly care about suffering unless it's their own. The killer’s taunts to police and the media make it seem as though he’s killing in order to force every character to think about the supposed equality of all people, and how illusory that equality really is. “Five murders a year in El Paso,” he says. “In Juarez, thousands. Why is one dead white woman more important than so many dead across the bridge?” The show’s people may lack compassion, but The Bridge clearly doesn’t. It cares as much about the young prostitutes and drug cartel foot soldiers in Mexico, the immigrants who sneak over the border, and the “coyotes” who prey on them as it does about the American reporters, police, businessmen, and politicians. Compared to all this, the occasional bum lines and scenes seem so negligible as not to merit mention. You can feel a network’s growing pains as you watch The Bridge, but growing pains are good. They’re what you feel when you’re evolving.