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“There’s two kinds of people in the world,” proclaims grizzled Border Patrol agent Ben Clemens (Michael Chiklis) to his rookie partner (George Pullar) in the new CBS All Access thriller Coyote. “Those who choose to break the law, and those that don’t.” Too much of a stickler even for his fellow officers, Ben is practically ushered out of the office at his own retirement party, even though he’s just discovered an underground tunnel and single-handedly rescued a woman from probable sex trafficking. Divorced from his wife (Kelli Williams) and distant from his adult daughter (Amy Forsyth), Ben isn’t particularly looking forward to his golden years — and he certainly isn’t prepared to confront the moral nuances he’d spent his three decades in law enforcement choosing to ignore.
Created by David Graziano, Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert (originally for the Paramount Network), the six-part Coyote is a simultaneously earnest and cynical iteration of a liberal fantasy — that of a conservative revising his worldview once he’s forced to walk in the shoes of a marginalized person. (Though the writers aren’t overt about Ben’s ideological leanings, showrunner Graziano has mused that the character “probably has a MAGA hat somewhere in the back of his closet.”) Before too long, Ben’s sawing a hole in the wall between the U.S. and Mexico to help María Elena (Emy Mena), a pregnant Salvadorean woman, flee from her dangerous and abusive boyfriend, aspiring drug lord Dante (Kristyan Ferrer). His helpfulness soon backfires: He has to take María Elena’s place as the narcos’ pawn.
AIR DATE Jan 07, 2021
Graziano and his writers establish plenty of parallels between their American and Mexican characters. Ben is moved to break his former oath of office when he sees that María Elena has a tattoo similar to his daughter’s. And like María Elena’s father, who in a flashback chooses death by a local gang in order to save his daughter from a gang rape, Ben agrees to work for Dante’s cartel-boss uncle (Juan Pablo Raba) after receiving a cell-phone video showing a narco henchman in his sleeping daughter’s bedroom. These character-developing backstories are easily the show’s narrative highlights. But the comparisons gradually start to feel artificial and pedantic, while underscoring how unlikely it is that someone like Ben would be forced into his circumstances in the first place.
Coyote is a strange hybrid: a late-middle-aged virility fantasy (à la Taken), as well as an “empathy machine” that attempts to humanize everyone caught up in the cartel system, especially the lower-level grunts. A generous interpretation of the show’s pseudo-ambitions might be that an entry-point character like Ben makes more visceral the dangers of the drug wars for its willing participants, its helpless victims and everyone in between. But the corollary that we’d need a white protagonist to understand the brutality of that world condescends to viewers — most of whom, I’d conjecture, don’t need to imagine a white person caught up in cartel violence to extend sympathy to real-life victims.
There’s action and suspense throughout the season, but the first two episodes — directed by Michelle MacLaren — are where they’re most effective, with Chiklis and Mena sharing scenes of resourceful self-defense and an unlikely comic chemistry (largely built on their characters’ inability to speak the other’s language). Impressively, there isn’t a hint of Vic Mackey, Chiklis’ charmingly sociopathic LAPD cop from The Shield, in Ben — but there also isn’t much in the way of layers or charisma to his performance, either. That featurelessness is largely paralleled in the production, which manages some tense and striking desert scenes in MacLaren’s episodes, but otherwise has the generic feel of a lower-budget network drama.
Stock characterizations and messy, contrivance-dependent plotting enervate the rest of the season. An unwanted bouquet of loose ends gradually reveals itself — quite possibly the result of the season order being truncated from 10 to six episodes after a COVID work stoppage, but unfortunate and distracting nonetheless. The cartel characters, including Dante’s seething bully of a father (Daniel Mora), are sketched too broadly for their simmering resentments or dynastic tensions to reach full resonance. Ben ends up stranded in Mexico for far too long — and as the viewers, so do we.
Cast: Michael Chiklis, Juan Pablo Raba, Adriana Paz, Kristyan Ferrer, Octavio Pisano, Cynthia McWilliams, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Emy Mena
Creators: David Graziano, Michael Carnes, Josh Gilbert
Showrunner: David Graziano
Premieres Thursday, Jan. 7, on CBS All Access
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