Sunday, July 28, 2013

How The Bridge's Sense of Local Color Informs the Rest of the Show

I hate when people describe a story's setting as a character, like "Woody Allen makes New York a character in Manhattan."  Even though I find that description kind silly, it does speak to the importance of specificity in stories.  Many great shows are thorough in the detailing of their setting, like Breaking Bad and Justified.  The former does it purely through visuals, while the latter is able to convince you that California is actually the backwoods of Kentucky because of how deep the characters and their extensive histories run, but they both give you an unmistakable sense of place.  A show like Mad Men, on the other hand, might not have a unique vision of New York, but it paints the advertising world with such a fine brush that it's what becomes the actual setting.  FX's new show, The Bridge, certainly isn't a great show yet, but like these other shows, it knows that the devil is in the details.

At first glance, The Bridge seems like a disposable and inessential show.  With AMC's The Killing and all of CBS's procedurals occupying our television screens, the last thing we need is another murder mystery show.  However, The Bridge insists upon itself due to its deep sense of local color.  Set on the border of El Paso and Juarez, the show's location differentiates it from others of its ilk, exploring uncharted terrain and allowing for fertile political implications around the corner of every moment.  Breaking Bad uses a different, more orange lens filter when depicting scenes in Mexico, but The Bridge doesn't do that, choosing to shoot and light El Paso and Juarez in similar ways.  The two settings bleed together visually as much as they do functionally, where thousands commute across the titular bridge every day.  That doesn't mean that each of them are generic though.  El Paso and Juarez both leave an indelible impression, and they both feel very real and lived-in, from the sun-soaked deserts to the overstuffed streets.  The show's also not afraid of scaring away the subtitle-averse, having much of its dialogue across the border in Spanish, just adding to the authenticity of everything.

This specificity and color extends to the characters as well.  Creator Meredith Stiehm, whose character-centric episodes on Homeland were often the best of the show, continues her ability to write people with spark and nuance here.  She's crafted one of the most fascinating female protagonists on television in Sonya Cross, a detective who is clearly somewhere on the autism spectrum, even if the show hasn't explicitly mentioned it.  Part of this is in Diane Kruger's performance, which is equal parts steely and vulnerable, but the rest is in the writing, which feels more authentic than the writing for many other TV characters on the spectrum.  The show is good at handling all the big checkmarks, the numerous occasions in which Sonya fails to show empathy, but the best moments are when we are just seeing her live her life.  The second episode features a sequence of scenes where Sonya just studies the case late at night, masturbates, and then goes to a bar to try to awkwardly pick up a guy, and its easily the most engrossing thing the show has done so far.  Her partner, Marco Ruiz, is equally intriguing, as Demian Bichir portrays him with an easygoing charm and a winning smile, yet a little bit of world-weariness underneath.  Even most of the side characters are exquisitely detailed.  Those that show up for just one scene have life and personality, and you can't help thinking that you could watch a whole episode centered around any of them just going about their day.

At this point, the plot of the show might not be pulling me in as much as I'd like it to -- aside from the initial shock of the reveal that there are two separate bodies that are being investigated, it feels a bit pulpy and by-the-numbers.  There are various threads right now, and while most of them are at least somewhat interesting, everything has yet to tie together enough to make the less interesting ones work.  Even when the plot isn't gripping, it's the level of depth to the world that keeps my attention.  The pace is slow for sure, but allows you to soak in every little detail.  Even the mysterious killer's motive ties in to the idea of stopping and taking in what's going on around you.  At the end of the very first episode, he/she calls Sonya and Marco, lamenting the fact that the police galvanize around the death of one white American woman, yet ignore the hundreds of deaths that happen in Juarez every year.  That the killer has a reasoning for murdering, beyond some psychotic perversion, and it fits into the grand scheme of the show's ethos is enough to convince me that Meredith Stiehm and her crew of writers have what it takes to elevate this past the trappings of the murder mystery genre.  Usually, I have more reservations about shows this early on, but many of the necessary parts are already here.  FX has had an insane hot streak with its dramas in the last few years, and The Bridge only seems to be continuing that trend.  

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