The pilot episode of The Bridge indicates it’s a series which speaks softly and carries a very big stick. Despite being a crime drama about two seemingly mismatched detectives joining forces to capture a serial killer – two of the most tired TV tropes in existence – you hardly notice because of two general strengths: careful attention to detail and being deeply rooted in horrific realism. This does not look like a show which sets out to reinvent the wheel, just produce a very efficient and overall solid wheel.
The Bridge is a remake of a Scandinavian crime drama of the same name which premiered in September of 2011. The FX series follows a joint investigation by American and Mexican authorities (led by Inglorious Basterds’ Diane Kruger and Academy Award winner Demian Bichir, respectively) into a series of murders which begins with two halves of two bodies – the top half a conservative American judge and the lower half belonging to one of the thousands of dead girls of Juarez – found on The Bridge of the Americas across the Mexico-Texas border. The original Dane-Swedish series is so well-received that not only is FX remaking the show in America, but a Franco-British co-production has been announced as The Tunnel to be broadcast on Sky Atlantic in the UK and Canal+ in France.
Apparently the co-production company Shine America wanted the series to take place on the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, in order to mirror the original series’ winter setting, but thankfully head writers and executive producers Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid were persuasive enough to set the series in El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Jaurez, Chihuahua. This setting, and the masterful world-building which makes it as much a character as either of the show’s leads, both of whom are fantastically effective, is crucial to the series’ intrigue. Though I contend this is a high quality episode on every level (writing, acting, directing, production, editing, pacing, tone), the politics of the region is what elevates it to potentially daring television.
Since the early ’90s there have been probably about two thousand or so abductions of young women in Ciudad Juarez, pretty much all of which have gone unsolved. I use such vague terms only because as Amnesty International puts it, “Inadequate official data on the crimes committed in Chihuahua, particularly accurate figures on the exact number of murders and abductions of girls and women, has led to disputes around the issues that obscure the quest for justice.” Yeah, the problem is so out of control that proper records aren’t even kept on these women. They are known unceremoniously as the dead girls of Juarez and their tragedy is a morbidly fascinating confluence of backward cultural attitudes, an intensely corrupt justice system, powerful drug cartels, and economic despair. To learn more about the corrosive epidemic check out Casa Amiga or Ni Una Mas (or just watch this At The Drive-In video), but for the purposes of this review suffice to say the gravity of that situation, while in no way compensating for the other aspects of the show thus far, absolutely lends to the show the level of stakes most dramas simply can’t replicate.
But to tackle the episode more directly, I loved how immediately the initial crime is portrayed and then seen to draw in its key players. Moving with deft momentum the episode (which was a full hour for the pilot as opposed to the standard 43-ish minutes) managed to provide solid characterization to both leads’ characters as well as those of their supporting cast. In particular, Kruger’s Detective Sonya Cross, who is part of a new categorization of television protagonists whom experience some degree of autism (including The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, Community’s Abed Nadir, and the late Alphas’ Gary Bell), convincingly conveys the isolation and painful uncertainty of functioning among individuals most of whom never consider the ramifications of anyone having such debilitating difficulties in terms of the social cues and norms which we all take for granted, let alone a police detective. Typically I cringe at such portrayals of the magical autistic, but done well, as I believe may be the case here, these performances can honor those they emulate.
In addition to Cross, Detective Marco Ruiz, and Cross’ supervisor Lieutenant Hank Wade (The Silence of the Lambs’ and Monk’s Ted Levine), we’re introduced to a horse trainer and his wife, the Millwrights, and an as yet nameless man who appears to be a coyote, or human trafficker. I’m curious to see precisely how this man’s interactions with the women of Juarez fit in with the plans of the mastermind orchestrating not only the dead women found on the bridge, but the fake carbombing of Matthew Lillard’s jaded journalist, Daniel Frye. Also curious is what Mr. Millwright’s secret basement contains which will drag Mrs. Millwright into the investigation.
I recognize how stilted and trite a show about odd couple detectives tracking a serial killer around a chief on the verge of retirement whose pilot includes a ticking time bomb sounds. But despite all these apparent cliches, The Bridge contains just as many admirably brazen elements and appears to be nothing less than the only series tackling not only issues of immigration, a topic controversial enough it’s unseen anywhere but 24 hour news networks, but those of the corruption and corrosive nature of Mexico’s infrastructure, a subject which deserves wider American attention for many reasons, chief among them being the fact that the concerns of our neighbors reflect our own. The Bridge is clearly capable of more than just riding the “ripped from the headlines” nature of their setting’s humanitarian concerns, and is a truly competent series which knows how to skillfully utilize its elements to successfully achieve its goals, such as Ruiz’s recent vasectomy and subsequent limp and good-natured ribbing from a coworker symbolizing a man who has moved beyond the archaic notions of machismo which many agree contribute to the hundreds of deaths per year of young Mexican women in Juarez, or the tears welling up in Cross’ eyes when she hears of Wade’s impending retirement and his reassuring shoulder bumps to comfort Cross in lieu of more conventional means of physical comfort. The Bridge may be playing on well tread ground, but if the pilot is any indication it’s merely a solid foundation upon which the series will construct a masterful narrative, one which I eagerly await to experience.
This article was first posted on July 12, 2013