There are many things to love about Briarpatch, USA’s new mystery crime anthology series. It’s almost unfathomably stylish, thanks to the involvement of Sam Esmail, who executive-produces alongside creator Andy Greenwald. It’s full of “oh hey, it’s that guy!” faces, including Kim Dickens as the police chief and Jay Ferguson as a wealthy baddie with a lawn full of giraffes. The show is also led by Rosario Dawson, who strides through Briarpatch like an untouchable, unflinching force. Still, watching Briarpatch often feels like watching a show very carefully designed to be great TV. It’s fast and quirky and colorful and distinctive, but it also feels empty at the center.
To explain why, we must turn to those aforementioned giraffes. Giraffes seem like they should be a side note when talking about Briarpatch, a show that has very little to do with giraffes and much more to do with Texas, small towns, car bombings, blackmail, criminal investigations, tangled noir webs, and Rosario Dawson’s impeccable suits. But the giraffes are a fitting representation of Briarpatch’s broader problem. They are beautiful — so striking and unusual that your eye is drawn to them immediately, distracting you from the details of whatever else is happening on screen. They belong to Ferguson’s character, Jake Spivey, and they roam around his yard as a symbol of his unbelievable wealth in contrast to the poverty in the rest of San Bonifacio, Texas.
The giraffes aren’t alone, either. As Rosario Dawson’s character Allegra Dill arrives in San Bonifacio to solve her sister’s murder, she’s held up in traffic because there’s been an incident at the zoo, and many of the animals are now roaming the town. After Allegra’s first shocked encounters with the wildlife, though, the zoo animals only arrive in notably weighty moments. A large feline prowls a hotel hallway, eating some symbolically rotting leftovers. In slow motion, a young girl reaches out to a zebra that’s appeared in the middle of a crisis. The giraffes stalk around Spivey’s lawn, and all of the animals taken together are guarantors that everyone both in and outside the fiction will recognize that this whole town is wild, man. Something wild is going on here.
Beyond that very direct signifier, though, Briarpatch’s menagerie is mainly for show. The animals amp up the show’s visual attraction, which is absolutely effective. It’s a slick series, especially in scenes where it leans into its baseline visual weirdness. The problem is that the superficial stylishness and strangeness of occasional zoo animals doesn’t come with a quirky or surprising story underneath. The proud external weirdness is a shell covering a fairly rote interior.
At the center of it all is Allegra, a character who might’ve been able to fill the hollow in Briarpatch if she’d been given even a little more space to be a person. Allegra isn’t flawless, and when she nearly gets blown up early in the series, it feels like a response to a note that the character seemed too impervious. Giving her a concussion isn’t quite enough to make her a person, though, nor is her funny nickname (Pickle Dill). The vast majority of her dialogue is dedicated to unraveling the many overlapping criminal enterprises in town, and there’s very little space left for Allegra to create any kind of impression beyond “badass looking for the truth.”
Allegra’s main task is to figure out what happened to her sister, but she’s also investigating a den of criminal activity in the town that weaves through old relationships and long-buried secrets. There is no shortage of suspects. One of the taglines in Briarpatch’s promotional materials is “it’s hard to find a killer when everyone’s a crook,” and that may be true. But it’s also hard to hold on to any one gripping, propulsive plotline when crime seems to be lying in wait everywhere Allegra turns. A metaphorical briarpatch may be an interesting, evocative setting for a story, but it can also feel like being trapped in a tangled bramble. No one barb is any more piercing than any of the others — it’s just thorns everywhere you look. Briarpatch is lovely to look at and its story clicks along at an entertaining clip. The trouble is that the second you stop watching it, none of its burrs stick.