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After weeks of bullshit, a fed-up colleague finally tells Peggy (Patricia Arquette) exactly what he thinks of her in the season finale of Apple TV+’s High Desert. “You talk and you talk and you talk and you promise the moon,” he rants, “and all you ever deliver is a grape.” And he’s not wrong — she exhales exaggerations and flat-out lies as easily as the rest of us breathe air.
But by that point, it’s become almost charming how good she is at talking a big game. Because if Peggy’s M.O. is to overpromise and underdeliver, her show’s is the opposite. What starts out feeling like a nothing tale of a nobody sleuth in the middle of nowhere gradually blossoms over eight half-hour chapters into a bracingly bizarre mystery, in the tradition of sun-baked neo-noirs like The Big Lebowski or Inherent Vice.
Cast: Patricia Arquette, Brad Garrett, Weruche Opia, Bernadette Peters, Rupert Friend
Creators: Nancy Fichman, Katie Ford, Jennifer Hoppe
Creators Nancy Fichman, Katie Ford and Jennifer Hoppe open on what we’ll learn is a rare high point for its heroine. It’s Thanksgiving 2013 in Palm Springs, and Peggy is in her element as the gracious hostess greeting the guests, checking on the turkey, drinking in the compliments. But the good times permanently screech to a halt when armed DEA agents circle the house, sending Peggy and her family scrambling to toss or hide the piles of drugs and money stashed around the house.
Ten years later, Peggy still hasn’t bounced back. She’s a recovering addict barely making ends meet as a pretend barmaid in a frontier-town tourist attraction — and now that her mother (Bernadette Peters) has passed, Peggy’s siblings (Keir O’Donnell and Christine Taylor) are preparing to sell the house Peggy had been staying in with her, leaving her with nowhere to go.
High Desert‘s most immediately apparent strength is a strong sense of personality. In a role that could hardly be further from Severance‘s icy, self-controlled Harmony, Arquette plays Peggy a hot mess who can’t help but slosh her Peggy-ness all over the place. Even when we don’t know what to make of her — and the series’ initial shortcoming is an emotional opacity that makes it difficult to understand what we’re supposed to want for her, how much we’re supposed to trust her or, frankly, why we should care about any of this — Arquette’s energy is too lively and specific to ignore.
The world around her feels equally vivid. If director Jay Roach made Peggy’s Palm Springs home look like a dream come true, with its airy hallways and jewel-like pool, Yucca Valley is apparently where dreams go to dry up. It’s not that it’s run-down so much as populated by people who seem to have run out of road. Its central attraction is that fake frontier, which consists of a single dusty street overseen by a stressed-out dude (Eric Petersen) with mommy issues. Its biggest celebrity is Guru Bob (Rupert Friend, getting to flex his comedic muscles for once), a local news anchor turned druggy cult leader whose mantra is “Everything’s stupid.” Its most prominent private investigator is Bruce (Brad Garrett), whose business is floundering so badly he’s resorted to selling old printers and used CPAP machines on eBay.
It’s the last of these that Peggy targets as she tries to get her life back on track, deciding on a whim to reboot herself as Bruce’s assistant. And while her sister points out, not unfairly, that “This sounds like another one of those crazy things you’re trying between rehabs,” Peggy quickly demonstrates a natural gift for sleuthing. Like pop culture hustlers from Saul Goodman to Howard Ratner, she has an instinctual understanding what someone needs to hear, and a willingness to trample over any boundary or denial to make sure they hear her say it.
She also has an eye for small details, and a knack for playing them to her advantage. The first time she marches into Bruce’s office, she makes herself at home and then fixes him a cup of coffee, having figured out exactly how he takes it by digging through his trash beforehand. By the time he’s finishing his drink, he’s dazedly agreed to take on this total stranger as an intern.
High Desert’s early aimlessness evolves by midseason into a likable shagginess, warmed by a surprising amount of heart. While the show refrains from wading too deeply into its undercurrent of melancholy, it offers glimpses of the pain at the center of Peggy’s life. It also shows us the sincere love surrounding her. Arquette is well matched by Matt Dillon as her criminal ex Denny, who tends to steer her toward ruin but also cares about her enough to take a mopey call from her while in the middle of an armed robbery. She also has a true-blue bestie in Carol, who looks to all the world like a prim and proper doctor’s wife — but who the script and actor Weruche Opia imbue with enough mystery and mischief to keep us guessing.
At the same time, High Desert gleefully ramps up the absurdity with each passing episode, until the case has sprawled out to include a cold murder case, a string of art forgeries, an intrafamily mob grudge and a father-daughter hit team with a thing for slicing off nipples. And that’s just the job. Off the clock, Peggy’s dealing with the appearance of her mother’s eerie doppelgänger (also Peters), whom she enlists for an autobiographical theater project in an effort to find closure. Occasionally, the narrative threatens to sag under the weight of all this stuff; questions about Mommy’s double, for instance, breeze by unexplained like so many tumbleweeds. But much like its own heroine, High Desert has a way of making too much feel just right.
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