A political television show is always a bit of a risky proposition: characters become ideologies, fictional settings (usually Washington, D.C.) is warped in a way that’s only problematic when a show is situating itself in a place that its audience knows all too well, and we, as an audience, are usually left with sermons and visions of utopias in the place of stories and character development. The past year has yielded two shows that root themselves firmly in political atmospheres while managing to remain, as a whole, apolitical: Netflix’s House of Cards and FX’s The Bridge.
Cards is focused firmly on Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and an imagining of what really goes on behind closed doors in the Capitol. The central conceit of the show is that it’s familiar yet unfamiliar at the same time. We know the Capitol building, we know that elected officials do most of their work behind closed doors, but our knowledge stops there. We don’t know anything about what the show is really interested in: how exactly people climb up the power ladder in DC and how the parties get the votes needed for bills. It helps to have an outstanding lead like Spacey and the slow creep of his personal life, which initially seems like a supplementary storyline, eventually take over the action of the show.
The same pattern is starting to emerge in The Bridge. It’s also set on the ground level of an acrimonious political issue that most are familiar with yet separated from. As the US government is currently making a mess of immigration reform, it seems like it should be easy to do a formulaic political reading of this show, but it manages to avoid actually commenting on this issue. This opens up an arena for great, character-driven television that, by virtue of its setting, also forces us to recognize those characters are in the eye of a political storm that could have huge implications on the makeup of this country.
The show is set in El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, so from the start we should know that the discrepancy between the two cities in crime, the poverty rate, and general opportunities and quality of life will be a major presence in this show, and considering the showrunners aspire to create something like The Wire in Texas, it may be safe to assume that it’ll become the main character. It seems contradictory to say that a show is apolitical and also modeled after The Wire, but David Simon didn’t get explicitly political until the second season at the earliest. The first season was rife with corrupt bureaucrats and centered on the destructiveness of both drugs and the war on drugs, but the show felt more like it was saying “look, this is happening right now in a major American city” than it was “these things are bad, these things are good, so this is what should happen in Baltimore”. Exposition isn’t a political act in itself.
The most impressive aspect of The Bridge so far might be the fact that the show seems to know exactly what it is–a detective drama set on the border of the US and Mexico–and executes that vision almost flawlessly. That’s not to say that its scope is narrow, as it’s only five episodes in and we’ve already been introduced to a drug kingpin, a Queen Coyote, a politically active serial killer, a curious prostitute-saving loner and a farm that takes in his rescues, the personal lives of the two detectives that anchor the show, an alcoholic journalist, and life in the two featured cities. The pursuit of a serial killer does a few important things for this show: it creates a refreshing distance from the inherent political issues while carving out space for character development and strong plot points, and the ripple effect from someone terrorizing the border can send the show out in many different directions (already we’ve seen the precarious politics of the Mexican police force and a few of the parties that have a stake in security along the border remaining at normal levels).
Of course, there are characters that are politically active (in a sense) and while most of the characters are politically aware, the only ones that are trying to affect change are a judge, who was murdered in the first episode, stitched together with a Mexican girl and left on the bridge, and the serial killer. The judge was in the midst of approving legislation to prohibit anyone from standing on street corners soliciting day work, and the killer is seemingly outraged by the huge differences between Juarez and El Paso (and of course that no one cares). Sonya Cross, the lead detective who seems to fall somewhere on the Asperger spectrum, could not be further removed from the political thrust of the show. She’s concerned with catching the killer and not much else. It takes a few episodes for her character to escape the socially awkward, work obsessed, single-later-in-life working woman formula, but as the details of her personal life creep out slowly, most of the decisions the writers and Diane Kruger made seem justified. Demian Bichir’s Marco Ruiz, Cross’ Mexican counterpart, is an understandably world-weary detective who is almost always wearing an expression between disbelief and amusement. He begins the series as Cross does in that he seems like a prototypical good-cop-family-man surrounded by corruption, but as the episodes move along, he too gains depth as we’re privy to some of his weaknesses and his willingness to fall in line with the Mexican powers that be that aren’t in the police force. These two provide a strong foundation for the series moving forward (much as Bunk and Jimmy McNulty did), ensuring that the show’s real thrust will lie in its characters as much as plot or politics.
It’s almost impossible to talk about television dramas these days without using The Wire or The Sopranos as a reference point, especially considering we’re nearing the end of both Breaking Bad and Mad Men, which is a shame because it can send showrunners into overwrought fits trying to get to that level. The Bridge seems to have as much ambition as any series that would announce itself as a descendant of The Wire, but it has laid out a framework that may allow it to reach those heights without falling into some of the traps along the way. It seems content in staying grounded in its characters, their pursuit of a terroristically political serial killer and the effect he has on all of the less than reputable people who conduct business back and forth across the border. It seems silly to say that a show can use that potentially enormous amount of content to stay grounded, but the show doesn’t seem in any hurry to reveal everything to us; we’re not going to be bombarded, it’ll be up to the audience to piece together the information that trickles out from the characters. It has been a very encouraging five episodes, and now that I’ve worked some of my thoughts out here, I’ll try to do a recap of the remaining episodes after they air.
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