“This kind of case will leave a scratch on your soul, give you bad dreams.”
“I don’t dream.”
On its own merits, the 90-minute pilot of ‘The Bridge’ – FX’s new serial drama that premiered Wednesday night – is an enticing introduction into what has all the makings of the next great prestige drama, a sort of “The Killing done right” that centers around a crime but is ultimately about the people that investigate it.
In the broader context, though, I’m already dreading the inevitable backlash to a critically-adored, heavily bilingual prestige drama centered around a rude but exceedingly competent woman.
Set on the border between El Paso and Juárez, ‘The Bridge’ puts its story in motion with a grisly crime scene that is quickly revealed to be two separate murders, one in the U.S. and one in Mexico. This brings a variety of investigative bodies into the mix, most notably the El Paso law enforcement infrastructure, led by Detective Sonya Cross, and the Juárez police, represented by Detective Marco Ruiz.
Sonya is, in a word, difficult. Though not specifically mentioned in the pilot, it’s not spoiling anything to reveal that Sonya has Asperger Syndrome, which is the only way to explain her behavior. The dynamic between our two leads is established early, with Sonya refusing to even consider allowing an amublance carrying a dying man through the crime scene, only to have Marco let is pass. Furious, Sonya demands his badge number, and follows through with making a formal complaint. When confronted about it later on by her understanding boss Hank, she can’t comprehend why her actions would have any effect on her working relationship with Marco.
The Sonya character and Diane Kruger’s performance are clearly going to take some getting used to, and intentionally so. While the her attitude stems from a medical condition, that makes it no less uncomfortable watching Sonya coldly grill the victim’s grieving husband, or reprimand Marco for not caring enough. And if the first 90 minutes is any indication, ‘The Bridge’ is going to be rather stingy in giving Sonya any warm moments, with her only sympathetic scene coming when Hank, her mentor and in many ways her professional guardian, announcing he’s planning to retire.
Sonya is a sort of cross between Carrie Matheson from ‘Homeland’ and Will Graham from ‘Hannibal’, a pathologically-driven crime solver with no interest in manners and no tolerance for those who get in her way. How much of the mainstream audience will stick with her is my biggest concern with ‘The Bridge’ going forward.
Stepping back to the broader context of television, the two current prestige dramas universally recognized as great – ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ – center around “bad guys.” Not antiheroes, but actual villains. Based on seasons upon seasons’ worth of evidence, I don’t see how you could view Don Draper and Walter White any other way. Yet, audiences not only watch them, but often root for them – and often against their spouses. Hell, at this point hating Skyler White is practically its own sport, even though she’s much closer to a “good guy” on ‘Breaking Bad’ than Walt will ever be.
Sonya Cross is decidedly a “good guy”, someone who is admirably devoted to bringing bad guys to justice. But she’s also impolite, brash, and difficult, and I already have a sinking feeling that much of the audience will quickly turn on her, despite her being infinitely more redeemable than the male anti-heroes they root for each week.
Nonetheless, ‘The Bridge’ would indeed be too cold and uncomfortable without a proper balance, and that comes in the form of Marco Ruiz. Demián Bichir delivers a phenomenal performance in the pilot, conveying the pathos and optimism necessary to warm up the show without coming off as cheesy or contrived. As what seems to be the one straight cop in a hopelessly corrupt system, Marco is thrust into a situation where he must balance his new demanding, critical partner with the political agenda of his own police force as well as the needs of his family.
Setting overall quality aside, the biggest difference between the premises of ‘The Bridge’ and ‘The Killing’ is that the former is not a whodunit. We’re introduced to what certainly seems like the killer in the pilot. The central mystery of the show, then, will be unraveling what promises to be a tangled web of politics behind the murders, and I suspect that’s where the series’ B-story will come into play.
Cleverly, the ambulance that Sonya wouldn’t let pass through the initial crime scene was not merely a plot device. It contained Charlotte Millwright, whose husband made it to the hospital, announced he was divorcing her, and promptly passed away. Back at the mansion, newly-widowed Charlotte discovers that her husband had a secret, and while we’re yet to find out what that secret is (mysterious door!), it doesn’t take a giant leap to see where we’re headed.
That cliffhanger, along with the thrilling and flawlessly-executed set piece involving a car bomb, provide a rather satisfying conclusion to the episode, something that many serial dramas fail to regularly do.
Connecting the storytelling and the characters on ‘The Bridge’ is an overhwelming sense of place. Whether it’s the tinny din of traditional Spanish music in Juárez, the abrupt changes from English to Spanish and liberal use of subtitles, or the ominous hum of the overhead power lines in El Paso, the pilot firmly establishes a fascinating and previously-unexplored “border” setting for the series to take place.
Going forward, I am a bit worried about this series commercially, because it combines all the previously-mentioned elements that audiences seem to react negatively to, even if I don’t feel like that reaction is valid. I therefore urge you to judge ‘The Bridge’ on its own merits, because this was an expertly-constructed pilot, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. Buckle up, amigo.