But “The Bridge” is one of those shows where the best qualities — the acting, the smart and precise pacing — function as an effective distraction from the goopy plate of Tex-Mex being served alongside a helping of refried beans. While it’s true that the show is set in the gritty realms between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, you nevertheless get the feeling that someone else’s complicated crime show has been shoehorned into a pair of Tony Lamas. In addition to the perennial tensions along our shared border, “The Bridge” tries to work in and around the present-day crises of drug-related murders and vanishing women that have plagued Juarez in the past decade. Amid such issues we are asked to somehow focus on a single murder.
It’s a juicy one, though: The killer outsmarts surveillance cameras on the Bridge of the Americas (a heavily guarded Rio Grande span that connects the cities), where he deposits the body of a woman exactly on the dotted international line. Crafty.
Diane Kruger (“Inglourious Basterds”; “The Host”) stars as El Paso Detective Sonya Cross, who arrives at the scene and declares the murder to be under American jurisdiction because the victim appears to be white.
Chihuahua State Police Detective Marco Ruiz (played by Demian Bichir, an Oscar nominee in 2012 for “A Better Life” who is known to “Weeds” fans as the suave drug lord Esteban Reyes) acquiesces and lets Sonya take the case until an autopsy reveals that the victim is, in fact, two halves of different women: The top half is a judge from Texas; the bottom half is a missing teen from Juarez.
Therefore, the detectives must work together, navigating each other’s personalities while they pursue leads. This premise is like so much else (imported or domestic) that we’ve seen lately, and, indeed, the tone of “The Bridge” is certainly akin to AMC’s “The Killing” — which was also based on a European crime show.
But I still (yes, still!) watch “The Killing” for almost the exact same reason I’m eagerly awaiting more episodes of “The Bridge”: the characters. As with “The Killing’s” mismatched crime solvers (played by Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman), Ruiz and Cross are far more fascinating than the murder they’re trying to solve.
He’s somehow survived a generation of cartel massacres and corrupt supervisors in the thick of Juarez, trying to be a good lawman as well as a devoted husband and father. She’s a workaholic on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, unaware of how her blunt demeanor repels those around her. I screened the first three episodes for this review (there are 10 more to come), and within minutes, I wanted to know everything about Marco Ruiz and Sonya Cross, which is revealed in delicate layers.
For better and also worse, Cross is yet another of TV’s female characters — such as “Homeland’s” Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) — whose strong personality is linked to something diagnosable. When TV’s most compelling women aren’t having mental or psychological issues, they’ve got dependency problems. The subtextual message seems to be that intelligence and determination in strong women must be explained by a disorder or, at the very least, in their obsessive work hours (“The Killing’s” Sarah Linden, for example). Responding to her body’s sexual needs, Cross simply visits a honky-tonk and retrieves a man with hardly any conversation as easily as she microwaves ramen noodles to assuage her hunger. (When her last conquest unexpectedly visits the police headquarters to ask for a second date, she blankly stares at him and then says: “I can’t have sex at work.”)
Her Asperger syndrome (or whatever it is) comes off as an intriguing quirk, but the net effect of such characters sometimes just looks like reimagined notions of old-fashioned hysteria, which is to say: On television, if a woman is good at what she does, then she must be cray-cray. I could press this criticism further, but I usually shelve it in relief that there are so many well-written, well-portrayed female leads on TV now. They’re all but nonexistent in the movie theaters, and contemporary literature is overly preoccupied with whether female characters are “likable.” Kruger’s unlikable performance here verges on some of the best we’ve seen this year on TV, of either gender.
As Ruiz, Bichir also gives a magnetic performance, but he’s got an easier job because he gets to play the good cop who oozes both intelligence and machismo. Naturally, he’s a flawed hero — not as faithful to his wife as he might like to be and not as loyal to his idealism about police work in the face of so much corruption.
Beyond these two, “The Bridge” is packed with supporting characters and plot threads — almost too much of a good thing. Matthew Lillard plays an underachieving, alcoholic El Paso Times reporter who finds himself at the center of the mystery; Catalina Sandino Moreno plays the colleague assigned to acquaint him with Juarez’s mean streets. Ted Levine plays Lt. Hank Wade, who, as Cross’s fatherly boss, is the only one who understands her personality disorder; Annabeth Gish plays Charlotte, a widow who discovers that her late husband was running one of those tunnels to Mexico we so often see in borderland dramas.
It’s a lot to keep track of, and, by the third episode, some of the plot twists elicit a yawn from those of us who’ve endured a lot of grisly cable crime of late. But so far, “The Bridge” appears to lead somewhere. It has a seamless and almost hypnotic quality to its narrative, and it’s easily one of the best debuts this year.
‘Camp’: Summer doldrums
Like an unwatered lawn and a driveway full of rolled-up newspapers, NBC’s one-hour dramedy “Camp” (also premiering Wednesday) is a clear sign that nobody’s home at the network for the rest of the summer. You could break in and take what you like.
“Six Feet Under’s” Rachel Griffiths stars as Mackenzie Granger, the owner of the Little Otter Family Camp — a slice of bucolic heaven that she’s trying to keep financially afloat and out of the hands of the greedy resort developer (Rodger Corser) across the lake. Mackenzie’s husband just dumped her, while her nerdy teenager, Buzz (Charles Grounds), has a pathetic case of pubescent horniness, just in time for all the shapely teen counselors to arrive for another summer of old-fashioned, capture-the-flag frolicking.
Slathered in iTunes and dappled with sunlight, “Camp” lusts after all the pop-culture sleep-away hijinks that preceded it, which means short-sheeting everything from “Little Darlings” to “Meatballs” and “Wet Hot American Summer,” with a “Porky’s”-style libido as a towel-snap. Then it gets hosed down with the barest minimum of network programming standards. It’s all good, clean fun that is not quite good, not quite clean and not quite fun.
(one hour) premieres Wednesday
at 10 p.m. on FX.
(one hour) premieres Wednesday
at 10 p.m. on NBC.