Throughout The Bridge there’s a recurring image of the titular structure connecting the American city of El Paso with the Mexican city of Juarez. It’s a bird’s-eye master shot, taken at night, and we see dozens of white and red lights glowing in the darkness as cars bustle across the border in both directions. It’s an image that succinctly and poetically encapsulates the show’s themes, as we can’t help but consider a contemporary River Styx navigated by citizens damned by a labyrinthine system of nesting political and legal hypocrisies.
Creators Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid, who’ve adapted The Bridge from the Scandinavian series Bron, waste no time plunging us into the thick of the horrors we associate with life near the border. Child prostitutes execute the tricks of their trade with the seasoned cynicism (and hopelessness) of professionals decades their senior. Vicious coyotes charge desperate Mexican illegals a stiff fee to shuffle them across the border into America only to brusquely dump them off in the desert to their presumed demise. Mexican police run investigations in fashions that are intended to appease the cartels in an understandable effort to avoid having their families burned alive in front of them, while American investigators are afforded the opportunity to indulge a sense of self-righteousness that’s mostly illusory.
The serial killer who drives The Bridge’s presiding narrative would appear to be acting out of motivations related to protest and aspiring revolution. In the opening, a female corpse is dropped on the bridge during a blackout that’s clearly been pre-arranged. The corpse belongs to an American judge known for her anti-immigration views, though an inventive twist reveals that the lower half of the bisected body actually belongs to a young Mexican woman from literally the wrong side of the tracks. The killer soon leaves a message for the police on both sides that establishes the broad strokes of his or her motivation: There are a handful of deaths in El Paso each year, and thousands in Juarez, yet law enforcement’s attention isn’t properly commanded until a rich white official joins the ranks of the dead.
Most of these story specifics are served up with lightning efficiency by the end of the first half of the pilot. The first few episodes of The Bridge are surprisingly plotty, and it appears that Stiehm and Reid have concocted an elaborate master scheme for the villain that will illuminate the hidden nooks and crannies of a wide variety of vividly conflicted sleazeballs and wounded idealists who’re struggling to tunnel respective niches for themselves in spite of the bureaucratic rot that tragically complicates international relations.
There’s a lot to digest, but Stiehm and Reid introduce an ingeniously simple and blunt gimmick that mostly allows them to steer clear of preachy Christopher Nolan-esque convolution. Positing the U.S.’s relationship with Mexico as a manifestation of a dysfunctional relationship writ globally, the creators present a series of American/Mexican pairs that parallel and parody one another: most prominently, the central Mutt-and-Jeff duo of El Paso’s Detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) and Juarez’s Detective Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir), who joust in a fashion that will be familiar to any casual reader or viewer of crime fiction; reporters Daniel Frye (Matthew Lillard) and Adriana Mendez (Emily Rios), as well as recently widowed rancher Charlotte Millright (Annabeth Gish) and her husband’s mysterious employee, Cesar (Alejandro Patino); even two potential killers, the shady social worker Steven Linder (Thomas M. Wright) and his pursuer, Hector Valdez (Arturo del Puerto), who’re peripheral to the principal story support this twin structure.
The Bridge is also governed by twin sensibilities, as Stiehm and Reid are torn between mounting a sturdy but conventional murder procedural and a weirder, kinkier soap that occasionally threatens to detonate very real social and racial tensions with admirably brazen aplomb. The murder sequences are strikingly intense, and sometimes suggestive of the violent sex that characterizes the lives of the young prostitutes who partially figure into the narrative, and the show’s aesthetic generally conjures a disturbing atmosphere of a purgatory that’s bathed in noir light and powered by human commodity. And an attorney, played by Lyle Lovett, threatens to steer The Bridge into Lynchian terrain with his menacing courtliness.
The writers have even invested the show’s dullest relationship, between Cross and Ruiz, with a sharp, subtle flourish, as Cross’s obsession with enforcing the law by the book is explained by her having Asperger syndrome, which is to say that one of the more tired clichés in the whodunnit genre of the cop who must learn to fly by the seat of her pants has been scrubbed of its sentimentality. Cross isn’t an endearing stickler for detail, but a struggling woman who constantly threatens the gathering of information with a bullheaded allegiance to a hopelessly rigged rulebook. The Bridge doesn’t have the forceful originality of other socially conscious dramas such as Justified and Hannibal, but it’s off to a promisingly lurid start.