Regardless of what side of the Rio Grande you live on, we can all agree that murdering people is bad. But how we deal with dead bodies differs. So when a corpse showed up on the U.S.-Mexico border in the opening minutes of FX's new drama The Bridge, two detectives, one American and one Mexican, each set to work in their own way. "We have lots of bodies," the Mexican cop shrugged, assessing the murder scene like a McDonald's cashier taking an order. Meanwhile, the American cop approached the situation with all the intensity of a three-star Michelin chef. Same case, different worlds. That's the simple premise of the surprisingly complex new summer series The Bridge, the latest in a long line of quality dramas fresh from the factory at FX.
The Bridge's debut highlighted the deluge of differences between its two countries, lead characters, police departments, and so on. Wound-up American blondie Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) and easy-going Mexican beefcake Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir) are chasing the same killer with different styles. Their corresponding police presences, the protecting-and-serving El Paso Police Department and the corrupt Chihuahua State Police, are working the same case with different rules. The two countries, the orgy of wealth that is America and broke-ass Mexico, are lifelong neighbors but may as well be light years away from each other.
Yet here are Sonya and Marco, the EPPD and CSP, USA!USA!USA! and Meh-hee-co smashed together out of necessity because some lunatic arranged two halves of two women right on that painted line that demarcates freedom* and Cool Ranch Dorito Locos Tacos from corruption and roadside taco stands. Conflict is the key to good drama, and it's all over the place here.
* Well, let's just call it "freedom," with quotes, for the time being, until I feel comfortable using email again.
But these differences aren't highlighted simply to create drama, which would be standard procedure for most series. There's a sinking—yet honest—"that's just how it is" feeling with just about everything. The Mexican police chief plays cards with cartel members. That's just how it is! American law dictates that every crime scene needs to be kept extra sanitary. That's just how it is! It's this approach that will give viewers a lesson in current events whether they like it or not, because The Bridge isn't just about detectives chasing a dude who cuts ladies in half, it's about the immigration debate, it's about the out-of-control drug cartels in Mexico, it's about American interference. And instead of hitting us over the head with these ideas, it drops us right in the middle of them, because that's just how it is. (Hopefully, The Bridge remains apolitical in subsequent episodes while still exploring the issues.)
Marco and Sonya's individual struggles to work within the boundaries of what's culturally permitted and what's foreign nonsense will make The Bridge's police work rise above that of your typical detective show. But as they slowly chisel away at their misconceptions about each other, The Bridge will maintain its buddy-cop formula. In one of the best scenes in the pilot, Sonya and Marco drove to the severed legs of Judge Gates and Sonya mentioned something about Mexican cops all being corrupt. "Not all of us," Marco said. And he's right. Marco is one of the few good guys working south of the border, and Sonya slowly learning that will cement their bond. Conversely, Marco expected tidy Americana Sonya to make some sort of sense as a detective and human being, but nope. When he saw a horse charm hanging from her rearview mirror, he asked her if she liked horses. "No," she said, and a few seconds later she was exiting the car in her denim jacket with a GIANT HORSE printed on it. An enigma, this loony lady is!
And that's why, for as great and comforting as Marco is, it's Sonya we need to talk about. She made one hell of a first impression. Her questioning of Judge Gates' husband was a disaster (her use of eye contact on the recommendation of her boss Hank was awesome). Her handling of the heart-attack victim at the border was robotic. She comforted reporter Daniel Frye, who was about to be blown to bits by a car bomb, by telling him, "The body will feel no pain," in order to get him back on track answering her questions so she could keep working the case. Even her coworker Tim Cooper (an early favorite character) has no qualms about labeling her a "total wackjob." You weren't the only one asking yourself WTF was up with her.
There was an interesting creative choice made by show creator Meredith Steihm (Homeland) to not reveal in the pilot exactly why Sonya behaved the way she did, and I'm going to respect that by not mentioning it here (but if you must know, you can click here, but don't worry, it's not really a spoiler and it's already all over the internet). In fact, the only way I found out was by looking through the press kit for the show, where it's mentioned fairly upfront in her character description. I've read several other critics puzzling over Steihm not being direct about Sonya's condition, but I think it works here. Marco isn't the only one getting to know her; we are, too. We should experience the same type of confusion and understanding that Marco does because it's the same kind of wonderment that anyone who meets Sonya goes through, and the experience is equally important in shaping our knowledge of her. Withholding what made Sonya act the way she did is actually the ultimate compliment to her character, if you ask me. Rather than say "This character is this, this, and this," we're left to organically discover it for ourselves. Some viewers will no doubt feel cheated, and those who want to know can find out easily enough, but I'm interested in seeing whether holding out on this major part of her character works or not. And really, will it be all that surprising in the end? Aren't all the signs there? Can't we all figure out what her deal is without it being explained? Because it's fairly obvious.
What's more puzzling to me is how Sonya, a woman so socially inept and void of empathy, can end up as a detective—considering all the teamwork and social interaction that comes with such a job—in the first place. (It seems Hank is a champion of hers, but we don't know why.) On Homeland, the writers took measures to show the audience that Carrie Matheson's manic behavior (she's bipolar) was "tolerated" by the FBI because she's an incredibly talented agent who can look at situations from a unique point of view. She had a track record. The Bridge did little to make the same exceptions for Sonya, whose difficult behavior was even more on the surface than Carrie's. In this sense, Sonya's character quirk feels more like a label, something to distinguish her from a normal cop. A trend that's becoming all too common and accepted in television is to plaster characters with some sort of "condition." It appears that by not outright telling us why Sonya is the way she is, Steihm is trying to avoid the idea of a label, which makes sense from the standpoint of trying to bring a new approach to a trope that USA Network has a made a living from. It's an approach that will probably appeal to a smaller set of patient viewers but leave others scratching their heads. I'm just rambling out loud here, apologies. But I find Sonya's character and Steihm's handling of her particularly intriguing. Hopefully, what makes Sonya tick becomes an integral part of the story and not just part of some sideshow.
It's a good sign for a show that what I've babbled about in most of the review has been about the fascinating background noise and use of character, but let's not forget there's a murder mystery at the center of The Bridge. However, the slow-burn approach to the case has left us with little to talk about but much to gawk at. Are we supposed to believe that old Mutton Chops is the murderer? Did we see him do anything more criminal than human trafficking? Yes he nicked that lady's ID, but did we ever see him kill someone? I'm weary of shows that jump through hoops with implications yet never outright point fingers at a killer. And how will Mr. Heart Attack, his Trophy Wife, and the mystery of the ranch house basement tie into all of this? (Seriously, what WAS in that basement?)
Still, I'm not entirely and immediately sold on The Bridge as a series the same way I was with The Americans. Yeah, The Americans is a very different show, but it jumped off the screen during the pilot and clearly laid out the framework for a stellar series. There's a lot that The Bridge did right in its first episode. The show's setting is outstanding, its underlying themes and their relevance to real life are fascinating, and its characters are intriguing. The Bridge is definitely good, but I think it's too early to call it great.
– I'm not ready to make a call on Kruger's performance as Sonya, because that character is so layered and her quirks dominated the pilot, leaving us with a lot to learn. But has anyone entered your TV world so easily and confidently as Bichir as Marco? His affect on people is fun to watch; El Paso PD receptionist Kitty Conchas was immediately smitten.
– Would you rather be stuck on a road trip listening to Sonya's thrash-funk or Carrie Matheson's jazz be-bop?
– SERIOUSLY WHAT IS IN THAT BASEMENT?
– Marco's exaggerated "How-dee pard-nurrr" was fantastic.
– I had no idea Matthew Lillard could play an adult. (No, I didn't see The Descendants.)
– Somehow the pilot was very satisfying in spite of its unusual structure. There wasn't much self-contained resolution, storylines were introduced with little hint of how they relate to one another, and there was a cliffhanger (THE BASEMENT!) with about 10 minutes left in the episode.
What'd you think of the series premiere?