There are many photo filters available these days, so you can give your pictures a distinct look or tone. I’d like to propose a filter called “The Bridge,” which adds on a thick layer of heat waves, golden light, sharply etched shadows, dusty air, and the sheen of sweat on skin.
Set on the border between El Paso and Juarez, the FX drama is a triumph of atmosphere, evoking an outstandingly vivid sense of place. Just looking at the show, without listening to the characters, is enough to transport you to the land of unrelenting sun, baked earth, and stillness. You feel the oppressively hot realities of both of the border cities in question. The gorgeously stark, slow-burning theme song, “Until I’m One With You” by Ryan Bingham, doesn’t hurt, either.
Also a powerful plus on “The Bridge,” which returns for a second season Wednesday night at 10: Demian Bichir. As Mexican homicide detective Marco Ruiz, Bichir gives a quietly towering performance. He casts a strong sense of humanity and hurt across a series loaded up with heartless, sociopathic, and ultraviolent villains. His Marco is complex, a world-weary man who’s always on the verge of paralyzing cynicism — particularly after his son was murdered last season — but who always seems to rebound into compassion and action. Bichir never seems to hit a false note, with his brooding brow and his slow, raspy voice.
Bichir makes Marco’s dynamic with his American partner, Diane Kruger’s Sonya Cross, more than just another in a long line of odd-couple TV detectives. She’s a stiff, cool figure whose Asperger’s keeps her at a distance from people, and he is warm and instinctive enough to understand her. There’s nothing cutesy about their connection, which saw a lot of strain in the first season. He gets her. Kruger’s performance has grown on me, or perhaps Marco’s empathy has given me a way to process her off-putting character.
Wait, what’s this? Another plus? Matthew Lillard is surprisingly good as a caustic El Paso Times reporter who is struggling with addiction. He uses his sense of humor in a dramatic context as his character, Daniel Frye, tries to serve as comic relief, always dropping bad jokes in an effort to seem like he doesn’t care. But he does care, despite his best efforts, and his hunger for tracking news stories continues to lead him and fellow reporter Adriana Mendez (Emily Rios) toward some dangerous drug cartel information.
OK, now the negative. The plotting of “The Bridge” can be dense. That doesn’t undermine my enjoyment of the show, but there are moments in between revelations when I sometimes feel at sea. That’s often the case with TV dramas that feature seasonlong arcs — the interweaving of the many story lines and the reasons for certain scenes aren’t clear until later on. The viewer needs to be patient. That was the case with “The Wire,” for instance, and it is a defining element of “Game of Thrones,” with its massive cast.
On “The Bridge,” there are the cops, the cartel characters, the reporters, Annabeth Gish as a widow with a tunnel across the border, Thomas M. Wright as a rogue social worker, and, this season, Franka Potente as a nasty, cold-blooded newcomer who doesn’t mind ordering a goon to cut off a man’s ear if she feels he isn’t listening to her. There are a lot of pieces in the puzzle.
When I stop trying to put them all together, though, I just give in to the show’s impressive inner life. And to the relevance. As America and its politicians continue to struggle with issues of immigration, “The Bridge” puts a face on border life. It takes you there.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.