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The much anticipated premiere of FX’s newest drama, The Bridge, does something fairly incredible early on. It manages to take a serial killer – the It Character on television these days – and bury his heinous crimes beneath a more compelling angle: the tensions on the U.S.-Mexico border and the contrasting lifestyles of citizens in both countries.
This is all the more impressive because the serial killer works in a way that’s as creepy and horrific as Dexter or Hannibal. And such emphasis would normally be catnip to writers trying to make the killer the center of attention (because, hey, that’s how it’s done), but instead the show seems intent to focus on Texas and Juarez and the localisms of each, which is kind of a neat trick of micro-lifestyles juxtaposed next to the macro of the United States and Mexico.
So, credit for that.
On the other hand, The Bridge (airing Wednesdays at 10 p.m. starting July 10) either made a terrible tactical decision or an egregious oversight in not explaining a significant trait of one of its main characters. Normally, I like to watch the first episode of any series and just experience it as anyone else would – watching it straight through the first time, not stopping to take notes and not being too bogged down in the concept. Granted, most people who read reviews get the backstory before they watch and, with any luck, will have this important oversight explained (as I’m about to do for you – and you’ll thank me). But it still seemed slightly odd that The Bridge wasn’t – in the first three episodes at least – going to address it, thus leaving the task to reviewers or creating some unnecessary “you’ll figure it out eventually” puzzle for readers.
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I liked the pilot quite a bit – a serial killer with what appears to be a political agenda murders an anti-immigration American judge and leaves her in the middle of the bridge joining the U.S. and Mexico. Only it’s only half of her. The bottom half is from one of the hundreds of young girls killed in the drug-cartel-run Juarez area. It’s a stylish conceit in that it immediately brings together Det. Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger, The Host, Inglourious Basterds) from the El Paso Police Department withDet. Marco Ruiz (Demian Bichir, A Better Life, Weeds) from the Chihuahua State Police.
Cross is uptight and agitated about the murder, eager to take control of the case. For Ruiz, it’s just another dead person in Mexico – at least half a dead person. He’s fine leaving the case to her, but gets a call after he’s gone home to go to bed explaining the weird half-body situation. Cross, pushy and driven, can’t understand why Ruiz would be asleep, even though it’s clearly late at night. She asks if he knows about any Mexican murder victim who might have been, you know, cut in half. “We have lots of bodies,” he says, half asleep. “Parts and bones.”
The first hour of The Bridge is a very creative way to tell a story that hasn’t been told very often (at least on television) nor very well (anywhere), and that’s the border connection plus social and class issues between the two countries. There is so much complex storytelling to be mined here that it’s exciting to contemplate where The Bridge might go with it.
But in that first hour, Kruger’s performance as Det. Cross stands out – and not immediately in a good way. Is she going for quirky? Is she trying to play Type A to Bichir’s more laid-back Mexican counterpart? Does she stand out because she’s, at first glance, the kind of typical blonde actress playing a cop American networks are so fond of, or is it because she seems to be trying so hard opposite the effortlessly amazing Bichir?
Neither, as it turns out.
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Through three episodes of The Bridge, with Kruger’s character getting progressively more abrasive and odd, what the producers have decided not to reveal but the press material does right up front is that Det. Cross has Asperger’s syndrome.
Oh. I see.
So (in this dramatic iteration) she’s blunt. Very blunt. She doesn’t understand empathy. She doesn’t like or express feelings (such as compassion, the appreciation of tenderness or touching, etc.). She doesn’t have typical conversations with people. She’s like a female Spock.
You’ll have to pardon this nitpicky transgression of mine as I dissect The Bridge, because not only is it a series I truly like after three episodes, but more important it’s one that has enormous potential beyond what it has shown in those three hours. I just couldn’t fathom why creators Meredith Stiehm (Homeland, Cold Case) and novelist Elwood Reid (What Salmon Know, If I Don’t Six), who adapted the series from the Scandinavian drama Bron, wouldn’t explain the actions ofDet. Cross, since not doing so puts Kruger in the unenviable position of being misunderstood and cloying.
It’s not like The Bridge is holding a lot back. Despite some impressive writing, there’s enough exposition to keep the lights on for a large audience, so admitting that Cross has Asperger’s doesn’t seem like a cheap shortcut and would add some breathing room to Kruger’s otherwise fine performance and depiction of the detective. (In fact, there’s a hint in the series that Cross’ inability to relate to people in what would be considered an appropriate fashion is understood best by her boss, Lt. Hank Wade, played wonderfully wearily by Ted Levine; one interchange suggests Wade is considering retiring, which wells up tears in the eyes of Cross because she at least understands that Wade has protected her and shielded her from recriminations).
Beyond this one – admittedly large – omission, The Bridge is another fine addition to the FX arsenal. The cast, includingAnnabeth Gish (Brotherhood, Pretty Little Liars), Thomas M. Wright (Top of the Lake), Matthew Lillard (The Descendants, Scream) and Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) is impressive at every turn. The writers have put enough emphasis on aspects other than the serial killer to make the show intriguing, there’s an endless supply of Texas-Juarez localisms that make for fascinating material, and one could imagine the big issue of immigration and the even bigger, but less studied, notions of freedom, opportunity and justice sustaining The Bridge for many seasons.
But initially, what you’ve got is a (very clever) serial killer working both sides of the border and trying to make a political statement, two diametrically opposed detectives and two countries curled up next to each other but far from in love. That’s enough, in the primary go-round. Plus, there’s a whiff that our serial killer might not be pulling the killing strings.
The Bridge is mandatory viewing for drama lovers, but it will be interesting to see where the writers take it and whether they have the big-league ability to make the evident potential materialize. One thing they’ve hopefully learned is that sometimes holding back information isn’t mysterious, it’s just confusing.
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