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One of the most admirable things about Edward Burns’ career since the writer-director-star’s 1995 Sundance breakout The Brothers McMullen is how well he has maintained his sense of scale. Somebody receiving a comparable level of festival hype today would have jumped immediately to a Marvel spinoff and vanished in grandiosity, but Burns has steadily continued to make small, character-driven ensemble pieces with brisk running times. You might not have heard of all of them, but they exist, they play festivals and I’m sure they have fans.
Some of that sense of scale goes missing in Epix’s Bridge and Tunnel, Burns’ latest attempt to conquer the small screen. Unlike his last series, TNT’s short-lived Public Morals, Bridge and Tunnel is comfortably within his aesthetic wheelhouse, a nostalgia-bathed coming-of-age dramedy set in Long Island circa 1980. Somewhere in the six half-hour episodes here there’s an 85-minute feature waiting to get chiseled out, excavating the story’s low-key pleasures from a whole lot of padding.
This is the story of longtime chums Jimmy (Sam Vartholomeos), Jill (Caitlin Stasey), Tammy (Gigi Zumbado), Mikey (Jan Luis Castellanos), Pags (Brian Muller) and Stacey (Isabella Farrell), reunited for one last summer of fun after their college graduations. They all have their eyes on the future — Jimmy as a National Geographic photographer, Jill as a fashion designer, Pags as an attorney, etc. — and they’re all hung up on relationships from their past. Jill and Jimmy have been a couple on-and-off since junior high, while Stacey and Mikey have been hooking up nearly as long. Pags has a crush on Tammy. Tammy has a crush on Mikey.
Shot by Jeff Muhlstock with a perpetual ’80s glow and designed to accentuate every feathered hairdo and every tacky interior design choice, then smothered in a one-hit-after-another soundtrack, Bridge and Tunnel has some of the same backward-looking sentimentality and the kind of camera-friendly young cast that helped turn Netflix’s Outer Banks into one of the surprise hits of last spring. Except that nothing happens. While Outer Banks generated brainless fun from its Goonies/Red Dawn inspirations, Burns seems to be looking to more narratively amorphous relationship narratives like Mystic Pizza or Diner — only without the compelling chemistry of the former or the crackling dialogue of the latter.
Instead, Burns — writing and directing all episodes — steers his pretty ensemble around roughly half a dozen locations or sets where they, in different permutations, have the same conversations over and over. Usually without any staging at all. It’s one thing to just plunk the camera down as two or three characters discuss the fact that Jill and Jimmy have different life priorities and they’re going to hurt each other again, or to be a fly-on-the-wall as Mikey complains that he doesn’t want to be an accountant or Tammy worries that her affection for Mikey might ruin their friend group. But to have those exact same conversations play out three or four times apiece with no variation? That’s not storytelling. Critics have been sent four episodes and when the last one included a double-date, I did a happy dance because it was the most exciting event in the series up to that point (and nothing actually occurs on that double-date)!
Clearly, Burns is trying to capture the insularity and potential for repetitiveness in these young characters falling into the same ruts as their parents, who all still live in Long Island. But when we’re forced to remain in Long Island while our heroes reference fun things happening in New York City, the whole thing reeks of frugality and not thematic purpose.
The repetitiveness also becomes baked into the characters and makes this group of randy, fun-loving 20somethings — played by actors who’d be more convincing as 30somethings — much less appealing than they’d need to be to justify even the relatively tight series runtime. Burns has always liked to write characters who get bogged down in self-absorption that keeps them from advancing in life, but he doesn’t yet seem aware of how differently that trait plays in an ongoing series versus a one hour-and-a-half feature.
Outside of the main sextet, Burns has given himself the biggest role as Artie, Jimmy’s salt-of-the-earth father who wants Jimmy not to throw away his life and to appreciate the photographer Bruce Davidson. Acting has always been the most consistent of Burns’ various trades, and his quiet, almost effortless charm elevates every scene he’s in. It also helps ground Vartholomeos’ performance, which, in other scenes, tends toward Long Island cartoonishness. The men here all lean on heavily accented caricature, leaving much of the heart in the show to come from Zumbado, Charlie’s Angels-era pinup come-to-life Farrell and Stasey, an Aussie forced for plot reasons to take on the biggest of the accents.
In shorter form, the authentic moments (most with Burns at the center) and pithy palavering (like a silly debate about Styx versus The Clash) might have stood out. Instead, we spend too much of Bridge and Tunnel humming along with the indisputably great needle-drops, waiting and waiting and waiting for the next thing — anything — to occur.
Cast: Sam Vartholomeos, Caitlin Stasey, Brian Muller, Jan Luis Castellanos, Isabella Farrell, Gigi Zumbado, Edward Burns
Creator: Edward Burns
Episodes air Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Epix starting January 24.
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