'Dig': TV Review

Dig S01E01 Still - H 2015
Ronen Akerman/USA Network

Dig S01E01 Still - H 2015

USA's multinarrative archaeological action series is too convoluted for its own good.

The executive producers of 'Heroes' and 'Homeland' team up for a globe-hopping thriller that doesn't dig deep.

USA’s murder mystery-cum-religious thriller Dig — promoted as a 10-episode event series — gets off to a cringeworthy start, opening with the too-cute juxtaposition of a passage from the Hebrew Bible (“Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer … ”) and an oft-quoted lyric by R.E.M. (“It’s the end of the world as we know it … ”).

From there, things get intriguingly complicated: That prophesied crimson cow is born on a remote farm in Norway under the watchful eyes of a Jewish sect. Then the story jumps forward two years to Jerusalem, where FBI agent Peter Connelly (Jason Isaacs) is drawn into a murder mystery involving an American woman (A Fine Frenzy singer-songwriter Alison Sudol) who looks just like his dead daughter. Meanwhile, in New Mexico, a cult led by scarily soft-spoken zealot Ted Billingham (David Costabile) gets up to some apocalyptic shenanigans with a 13-year-old boy, Josh (Zen McGrath), who appears to literally have been bred to bring about the end of time.

Points for ambition to creators Tim Kring (Heroes) and Gideon Raff (Homeland), though based on the three episodes sent out for review, their overstuffed setup isn’t likely to pay off in the long term. Much of this has to do with the series’ frenetic feel. An early foot chase through a street market, filmed like a Bourne-series offshoot with shaky, handheld camerawork and incoherent editing, seems like a mission statement: Chaos reigns.

There’s little rhyme or reason to the way the series jumps between locales and doles out its prevalent plot twists, and that kills most of the desire to see how these disparate narrative threads will eventually converge. Could the series’ behind-the-scenes woes (civil unrest in Jerusalem forced the production to relocate to Croatia) have contributed to the overall sense of displacement and disinterest?

Read more: 'Dig': How USA's New Israel-Set Show Forged On Amid War and Uncertainty

It certainly doesn’t help that there’s a seen-it-all-before quality to many of the characters' interactions. Connelly’s reluctant partnership with Israeli police detective Golan Cohen (Ori Pfeffer) is warmed-over Lethal Weapon, while his friends-with-benefits relationship with his stern supervisor, Lynn Monahan (Anne Heche), feels like a desperate attempt to wring some soap-operatic tension out of an otherwise standard disapproving-boss/disobedient-employee dynamic.

The New Mexico sections at least have some genuine suspense thanks to Costabile’s low-key lunacy as well as a jangled-nerves performance by Lauren Ambrose (of Six Feet Under fame). She plays Debbie Morgan, an off-balance acolyte who befriends young Josh and, in the process, discovers just how far her psycho leader is willing to go to foster Armageddon. There’s a terrific scene in which Debbie sneaks Josh out of his antiseptic, windowless room, taking him outside to a patch of grass surrounded by towering concrete walls.

It’s a potently surreal image in a series that mostly takes a prosaic approach to visuals. Dig is more about the never-ending swirl of plot. What’s with the animal sacrifices going on in an archaeological site under Jerusalem? Why is wanted man Yussef Khalid (Omar Metwally) hunting down a series of rectangle-shaped rubies? Is U.S. Ambassador Ruth Ridell (Regina Taylor), Monahan’s direct superior, truly on the straight and narrow? Each episode introduces several new wrinkles — even an arrogant prehistorian played on autopilot by hoity-toity specialist Richard E. Grant — to the point that the unexpected becomes expected and monotony sets in. There’s little excitement in having the rug so consistently and predictably pulled out from under you.

Isaacs, at least, makes for a good, bewildered protagonist. Kring and Raff give him a complicated past — not only a dead daughter but also a distant wife to whom he makes drunken late-night phone calls. (So tormented!) And the actor runs with all the rote shadings, elevating this Da Vinci Code-esque trash with his sheer commitment. There’s real longing, and a touch of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in the way he follows Sudol’s mystery woman into the caverns below Jerusalem. It’s flashes of inspiration like this that make one wish Kring and Raff would put the brakes on their plotty conspiratorial ditherings and linger a bit longer on mood and atmosphere.

Twitter: @keithuhlich