There’s an enormous amount of compelling material in FX’s new drama “The Bridge.” Viewers have come to expect moral punch, sophisticated story lines, atmospheric texture, and acting excellence from the network that has already given us “The Shield,” “Justified,” “Rescue Me,” and “The Americans.” And “The Bridge” quickly lives up to that high expectation, based on a preview of the first three episodes. The show unfolds like a rich, gritty, and addictive novel, with some surprising detours and lots of transporting, grainy imagery.
Yes, it’s yet another one of TV’s serial-killer puzzles: more mystified cops, more severed bodies, more profiling. And yes, it’s also yet another buddy-cop TV setup, with a pair of detectives who bicker but whose talents nonetheless mesh. And yet, like “The Killing,” “The Bridge” rises well above those too-familiar TV tropes and expands into a portrait of a particular part of the world and its people. Just as sun-starved Seattle and its subculture of street kids define this season of “The Killing,” the heat and dust and thorny immigration issues of the US-Mexico border are integral to “The Bridge.” As the action moves back and forth between the countries and the languages (there are some subtitles), it brings us deep inside a divide filled with raw prejudice and class conflict.
The murder mystery opens with a dead body positioned carefully on the bridge between El Paso and Juarez. We learn that the body belongs to an American judge who has an anti-immigration reputation, but things are not as simple as they seem, and by the end of the premiere the plot has thickened significantly. The killer clearly has a political agenda, as he or she says in a message to the police: “Why is one dead white woman worth more than so many dead just across the bridge?” The killer cleverly manipulates a substance-abusing reporter from the El Paso Times, Daniel Frye (Matthew Lillard), into conveying his or her messages and discovering the bodies.
Those buddy cops? They’re from either side of the border and the personality spectrum. Demian Bichir is Marco Ruiz, a detective for the Chihuahua State Police who uses charm and intuition to unearth information. He keeps his mouth shut at the station, where drug cartels exert influence on his boss. Bichir, who was nominated for an Oscar last year for “A Better Life,” is a pleasing presence on the show, as his integrity, and his weaknesses, play so quietly but clearly on his face. He is extraordinary, and yet always understated.
Diane Kruger is Sonja Cross, an abrasive detective with the El Paso Police Department who has Asperger syndrome. She sticks to the rules and has no tact, which we learn quickly, when she coldly tells the judge’s husband that his wife is dead. Ultimately, he kicks her out of his house. She’s beautiful, but she doesn’t understand that it’s unusual to approach a man in a bar and ask, without playing the pickup game, “Wanna have sex with me?” Her loyal boss, Lieutenant Hank Wade (Ted Levine), recognizes her talents and overlooks her faults; Ruiz is a little less understanding, at least initially.
“The Bridge” is based on a Scandinavian series called “Bron / Broen,” whose crime scene was a bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark. It does a superb job of balancing the concept of international border tensions with the many specifics of the twisty murder-mystery genre. The already full crime story line opens up to include subplots involving a recently widowed woman in El Paso played by Annabeth Gish and a number of illegal immigrants stuck in the middle of the desert with no water. All the disparate elements — or all the seemingly disparate elements — hold together organically, and all the characters — even, sometimes, walk-ons — are finely drawn.
Have you detected a “but” lurking in this review? I do have one, and it’s a possible deal-breaker for some viewers. There’s something awfully distracting about Cross, which is either because of the writing or because of Kruger’s performance, I’m not sure. The tone of “The Bridge” is so dark and unsentimental, beautifully embodied by the craggy title-sequence song by Ryan Bingham. But Cross and her inability to read social signals are sometimes used as comic relief — her adventure in the bar, for example, plays like a singles romantic comedy — and that doesn’t work. It’s as if Cross has migrated over from a lighter show such as “Bones,” whose blunt and cool lead she resembles.
I got used to her, but some may not. Too often, the character breaks through the formidable spell that “The Bridge” casts.