Aside from its setting, much about The Bridge is familiar: The by-the-book cop who reluctantly teams with someone willing to bend the rules; the obnoxious veteran reporter who reluctantly teams with the rookie who turns out to be pretty sharp; the rich widow who discovers that her husband harbored a secret; the strange loner living in a trailer in the desert.
But the setting — the U.S.-Mexico border cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez — is something we haven’t seen often in series TV, and it gives The Bridge the chance to be something more than an ordinary serial-killer mystery. The series, arriving on a wave of acclaim and hype, addresses immigration issues, cultural differences and the dichotomy between drug war-torn, violence-plagued Juarez and relatively peaceful El Paso, which has had one of the lowest murder rates in the United States during the past decade.
For all its ambition and advance critical buzz, however, The Bridge is erratic, and a bit of an underachiever. Adapted from a European series set on the Denmark/Sweden border by Meredith Stiehm (Homeland) and Elwood Reid (who worked with Stiehm on Cold Case), The Bridge benefits from moody direction but wavers too often from straightforward procedural to Coen brothers-style quirkiness.
El Paso homicide detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) has Aspberger syndrome, which makes the character stand out from other no-nonsense cops, and allows Demian Bichir (who played the corrupt Tijuana mayor in Weeds) to give the more charismatic performance as Marco Ruiz, the Chihuahua State Police detective who works and clashes with Cross. And although Matthew Lillard’s arrogant reporter is written pretty ridiculously, Lillard plays him with gusto, especially in a scene near the end of the premiere where the killer makes contact with him. So even though there are some clichés in the characters, the performances manage to transcend them.
But the series, which aside from the pilot was not filmed in El Paso, could stand to have an even broader view of border culture, especially the El Paso side, which it portrays a little too much as if it were any other city in Texas. Good ol’ boy cops and Latinos who decline to speak anything but English certainly exist in El Paso (full disclosure: I grew up there), but the writers treat El Paso and Juarez as if there’s a harder line between them than there really is, as if almost everyone north of the border speaks English exclusively in a city that’s more than 80 percent Latino (one of the more realistic characters is Alice Rios’ rookie reporter, a bilingual young woman who lives in Juarez and works in El Paso). Bichir, a Mexico City native, has indicated in interviews that he hopes the series will also provide a broader view of Juarez than as just a volatile danger zone.
The producers told The El Paso Times that they want to portray the area as accurately as they can while filming in California, and to their credit, even with its lapses, The Bridge does a better job than most movies that have been set on the border. And it does get better as it goes along, with a second episode that’s much better than the weighed-down-with-exposition premiere and a grabber of an ending for its third episode. Reid told the El Paso paper that if the series gets a second season (and a little more financial clout), he’d like to film more episodes in El Paso and Juarez. These are positive signs for The Bridge’s future, but so far I’m unconvinced that it’s the new classic that some are making it out to be.