In the opening moments of THE BRIDGE, a new crime drama that debuted last week on FX, a serial killer disrupts electronic surveillance on the Bridge of the Americas long enough to leave a chilling calling card: the lifeless body of a woman placed directly on the border line between the United States and Mexico. When authorities from both countries show up to investigate, El Paso police detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) immediately stakes her claim because the victim, a judge, is from the U.S. Her Mexican counterpart, Det. Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir), has no desire to add another crime to an already full plate back in Juárez and happily lets Cross take the reins.
Things get ugly and more complicated when Cross and her colleagues make a shocking discovery while attempting to move the body: there are actually two victims. The killer staged the top half of one body (the aforementioned judge) and the bottom half of another to make it look like they were one. The unidentified lower limbs are eventually traced to a missing girl from Juárez and Det. Ruiz is reluctantly thrust into the thick of the investigation. Oh yeah, Det. Cross is haunted by the death of her sister and she also has Asperger syndrome, a combo which makes her quite the charmer.
The pilot moves at a deliberate pace and expertly weaves together Spanish and English dialogue. The effect is almost hypnotic and gives the proceedings an otherworldly vibe. Things eventually lead to a nail-biter of a climax that involves a douche bag reporter from a local paper (well played by Matthew Lillard) locked inside a car rigged to explode. The process of figuring out how he fits into the big picture and a chilling final message from the killer lay the groundwork for the rest of the season.
On the downside, there are a few secondary characters and storylines that don’t always put meat on the bone. Chief among the gristle is Annabeth Gish. She plays Charlotte Millright, the wife of a wealthy ranch owner who we first meet in the midst of the chaos at the border crossing. Her husband had a heart attack while in Mexico and Det. Ruiz allows her to cross back into the U.S. so she can take him to an American hospital. While there, Charlotte’s hubby breaks the news that he doesn’t love her anymore and wants a divorce. Fortunately for her, he kicks the can before he’s able to lawyer up and she is left with the ranch and the discovery of his dirty secrets.
Charlotte eventually is led to a part of the ranch she has never seen (I guess she doesn’t stroll around her own property much) and a mysterious locked basement door. Of course, what’s behind the door isn’t revealed and, honestly, I could care less. Confused? Wondering what the heck this has to do with the bisected body, sicko serial killer and our dynamic detective duo? You’re not alone. I’m sure it all has some bearing on the main storyline but the way it’s presented here is clunky and awkward. It’s feels like a pointless distraction, though Gish does a lot with the scraps she is given.
I’m also over the dramatic crutch of the quirky detective, especially when writers pull Asperger syndrome out of their bag of tricks and toss it into the mix. Yawn! There’s enough good stuff here without adding another “just because” twist. Why can’t Det. Cross just be a hard-ass with a past and no trendy medical condition? Did TV scribes learn nothing from Mary McDonnell’s unfortunate stint on GREY’S ANATOMY? Guess not.
In fact, my least favorite thing in THE BRIDGE is the character of Sonya Cross, in large part because Kruger simply doesn’t have the acting chops to handle the part as written. With the exception of her interplay with Lillard as the bomb in his car counts down to zero, too many of her interactions with others come across as silly and ham-handed. If there’s a drinking game to be played while watching the pilot it would involve taking a shot every time you have the urge to clock Det. Cross. Most of us would be falling down drunk at the half-way point.
The rest of the cast fares much better, with fine turns by supporting players and a star-making, U.S. series lead debut from Bichir. You might remember him as Esteban Reyes on WEEDS, a supporting role he played from 2008-10. He’s also had a long and distinguished acting career in his native Mexico. His performance here is so good, you forget you’re watching an actor at the top of his game. Bichir electrifies every scene he’s in with an earthy, effortless charm and the world-weary countenance of a man who has seen horrors that most of us can only imagine. Somehow, his Det. Ruiz still manages to show up every day and go home at night to a wife and son he clearly cares deeply for. Demián Bichir is a major talent and reason enough to want THE BRIDGE around for awhile.
No show set on the border between the U.S. and Mexico is going to be without its share of political and social messages. THE BRIDGE is no exception but, this is a key aspect of the show that is handled with unusually deft skill and an ear for authenticity. There isn’t a thinly veiled lecture on immigration reform or a gross stereotype to be found. It’s a testimony to the talent behind the scenes that the most provocative moments come when we see Det. Ruiz at home with his family in Mexico. It’s just so normal and workaday yet, because this is something we almost never see on non Spanish-language network TV in the U.S., it feels like a thrilling revelation. That means no stupid scenes of the “little woman” at home in traditional garb kneading masa and making tortillas.
Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of FX dramas like SONS OF ANARCHY, JUSTIFIED or the wildly overrated AMERICAN HORROR STORY. They tend to be overly violent and relentlessly depressing affairs. I think that’s what makes THE BRIDGE such a pleasant surprise. It’s a show about a serial killer that doesn’t revel in gore or misogyny. It’s set on the rough and rumble border between El Paso and Juárez yet it doesn’t leave you with the bitter taste of darkness and despair. Despite some stumbles along the way, there’s enough good stuff in the pilot to keep you coming back for more and a performance from Demián Bichir that helps make this the most promising series debut on FX since RESCUE ME.
“THE BRIDGE” AIRS WEDNESDAYS AT 10PM E/P ON FX
RONTHINK RATING: A-
EDITOR’S NOTE: Thanks in large part to the distribution contracts signed with cable and satellite affiliates, FX is pretty stingy when it comes to streaming original series episodes. That means if you don’t DVR new installments of THE BRIDGE or buy individual episodes on iTunes, Google Play or Amazon Instant Video, your free online and mobile viewing option is limited to the series website. Hey, FX, 2008 called and it wants its video player back! Truly one of the worst online viewing experiences I’ve had in awhile. Aside from the less-than-HD video quality, every commercial break starts at the wrong time, usually 60 seconds or so before it’s supposed to. That means the climax of every scene gets interrupted and cut off. If you’re used to the Hulu viewing experience, watching THE BRIDGE on the FX website will make your eyes bleed.
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