A large part of what made the last decade of television so exhilarating was the palpable sense of anarchy. The fastest way for emerging networks to be noticed was to make as big a programming splash as possible. So, for a few glorious years, there was a bull market on the types of scripts usually consigned to desk drawers and blacklists: the deeply weird and the deeply personal, the druggy and the divine. It’s often easier to win when you have nothing to lose.
A large part of what has made the last few years of television so discouraging is the way that networks have worked mightily to stamp out that anarchy. Though eager to capitalize on the spoils of all that highly profitable creativity, the vast majority of suits would prefer to avoid tethering themselves to the high-flying whimsy and high-priced demands of creators1 themselves. This is how we got from Mad Men to Magic City, from Breaking Bad to Low Winter Sun. It’s never been possible to reverse-engineer a sure thing in Hollywood, but that hasn’t stopped broadcasters from trying, stuffing their slates with bloody genre adaptations, pitch-black thrillers, and a potpourri of international “formats” — the anodyne industry word used to describe easily translatable shows that have already hit big in their home countries. (The Office was a format. So was Rake.) Recently, literary novels and dense history books have been raided for source material. Not even beloved art house flicks are safe. Just the faintest whiff of established success was apparently enough to put executive minds at ease. Whatever was lost in translation was gained back in reliability. Or so went the plan.
When it launched last summer, FX’s The Bridge appeared to be the best-case scenario for just this sort of unadventurous thinking. Smartly adapted from the Scandinavian crime show Bron by Meredith Stiehm — herself a veteran of another successful international adaptation, Homeland — and her former Cold Case colleague Elwood Reid, The Bridge relocated the original’s multinational intrigue from Sweden and Denmark to the considerably more fraught frontier separating the United States and Mexico. The pilot was one of the strongest in recent memory, with Diane Kruger and Demián Bichir delivering sharp performances as an Asperger’s-afflicted El Paso detective and her gruff counterpart from Ciudad Juárez, brought together to investigate a cross-border murder. With the story track already laid, Stiehm and Reid were free to focus their attention elsewhere, sketching out a remarkably humane and nuanced vision of a place that’s regularly used to score political points when it’s not being outright ignored. Though the tone was certainly dark — the story spins on the discovery of bisected corpses left to rot on the Bridge of the Americas — what struck me most about the show was its bright curiosity. With its lively, bilingual cast, The Bridge stood out for being a crime series more concerned with those caught between the criminals and the victims than the crimes themselves.
But the biggest problem with following a preexisting track is that it’s nearly impossible to change direction. As the first season picked up steam, The Bridge rumbled past all the fascinating little bits that I came to refer to as The Weird Bridge — Lyle Lovett’s Crock-Pot-toting cartel lawyer, a fundamentalist chicken farmer tending to a flock of undocumented runaways — as it barreled toward a patently ludicrous showdown with television’s umpteenth mustache-twirling serial-killer mastermind. It was disappointing. The realities of the border conflict, of the unstoppable drug trade, and of the surreal horror of Juárez’s decades of unsolved femicides were all far more compelling than the sight of an angry man with a bomb strapped to his chest. What had appeared to be a nuanced investigation into nationality and loyalty was gradually revealed to be a cat-and-mouse game — and not a particularly clever one at that. I’d never seen a show so loaded with all the intangibles that make for greatness — including a stellar cast,2 a riveting point of view, and a deep bench of supporting characters — so oddly uninterested in exploiting them. There were sparks flying in every direction except the one in which The Bridge was heading.
This deterioration was disappointing but not altogether surprising. Lots of young shows pull up lame — and even when given the opportunity are rarely able to correct themselves. Self-diagnosis is hard. Self-improvement harder still. Stiehm and Reid weren’t deaf to the criticism — by all accounts, they agreed with it. But it was too late to alter course. Instead, they accelerated it, wrapping up the serial-killer story line with two episodes remaining. Though few viewers remained to see it (ratings had declined from 3 million for the pilot to just 1.4 million for the finale), The Bridge, in its last hours, gave in fully to the weirdness that had long haunted its margins, swapping the cleanliness of the Scandinavian revenge plot for a murkier moral quagmire more appropriate to its setting. (The great Chilean author Roberto Bolaño referred to Ciudad Juárez as “our curse and our mirror.” Malmö, where Bron is set, has been called “a small, friendly city with a good choice of cultural attractions.”) To so baldly audition for a second season that was in no way guaranteed was a radical decision but, ultimately, the right one. By jumping the rails, The Bridge was able to demonstrate its potential as a series, not a format. The map was gone, but in its place was momentum.
T he Bridge no longer seems a suitable name for the series that returns tonight at 10 ET. It suggests compromise and reconciliation when none is evident. What had become a rote potboiler simmering on someone else’s stove is now bubbling over with fresh eccentricities and exhilarating menace. Those who bailed out of frustration are advised to jump back in now. After a year spent dawdling between inspiration and expectation, The Bridge has finally picked a side. It has fully crossed over now, and it’s all the better for it.
Serving as the lone guide for this journey into the unknown is Elwood Reid. As he explained on my podcast last year, a disagreement with Stiehm over where to take The Bridge — she preferred a straight procedural, he relished the chance to go wobbly and digressive — led to her departure and his first opportunity to be the boss. (Stiehm subsequently returned to Homeland, a series that had badly missed her steadying influence.) Reid is a tall man, and it’s possible, in the first few episodes of Season 2, to feel him stretching out and relishing all the legroom. Without the need to compromise or service a preexisting plot, he’s free to cram The Bridge with all sorts of intriguing oddities: an assassin driving a hybrid, a heartfelt argument about the merits of Rush juxtaposed with the violent removal of an ear.3
Tonight’s premiere, called “Yankee” for reasons that involve taxidermy more than patriotism, plunges viewers headfirst into woozy, table-setting delirium: As a Lee Hazlewood song thrums in the background, we’re treated to the sight of Lovett’s Monte P. Flagman entering a McMansion and sliding his snakeskin boots through a puddle of blood; as he searches for the source, thick drops of vermilion fall from the second-story landing onto his immaculate 10-gallon hat. It’s a suitably disorienting image for what has become a singularly disorienting show. Are we in Texas? Are we in hell? The location doesn’t matter nearly as much as the stain.
Though the specificity of The Bridge’s setting is one of its main selling points — a great deal of my enthusiasm for and patience with the show stems from my desire to see the vibrancy and complexity of Mexico represented on TV — this newfound sense of dislocation is key. The first season’s turn toward a simple binary (Marco and Sonya good; David Tate bad) too closely echoed the regressive jingoism of our worst national debates about the border. Tate was a straw man in a field not lacking for them. In Season 2, Reid allows shadows to fall over everything. Kruger’s Cross is struggling with her own past and the bureaucratic realpolitik of the DEA. Bichir’s Ruiz, still drowning his sorrows over the loss of his family in an ocean of cervezas, is being targeted by his own colleagues. Underneath it all, the drug trade metastasizes unchecked, spreading from kingpins like the cigar-chomping Fausto Galvan (the phenomenal Ramón Franco) to a gang of BMX-riding adolescents who have traded pop guns for the real thing. It’s a cancer to be managed, never a disease to be cured.
This is a subtle distinction but an important one, allowing The Bridge to thrive as a show about people, not a problem. In the early going, at least, there is no attempt to “solve” the femicides, to ascribe blame or suggest solutions. It’s not that no one is guilty. It’s that, suddenly, everyone is complicit. With the support of smart voices like Mexican filmmaker Mauricio Katz (Miss Bala) and ace New York Times reporter Damien Cave, whose recent series “The Way North” is an absolute must-read on the actual experience of immigration, Reid has removed the scare quotes from his characters’ trips south of the border. He gets all of the little things right, from the squawk of the streets to the warming clatter of a local panadería. Mexico, like America, is a place where people die and live. For every body that reporters Daniel Frye (the remarkable Matthew Lillard) and Adriana Mendez (Breaking Bad’s Emily Rios) discover zipped into a duffel bag in Juárez, there’s a fully realized person nearby to grieve. And the horrors aren’t limited to one side of The Bridge. An episode later, Cross and Ruiz find another body stuffed into a barrel on the outskirts of El Paso. Violence has no respect for fences, rhetoric, or privilege. Violence respects nothing at all.
This new Bridge isn’t perfect. Some of Reid’s pulpier choices feel like indulgences, including a fevered religiosity (crosses reflected in arterial blood) and the extremity of the season’s big bad: A self-scarring “shunned Mennonite” cartel accountant played, with predatory gusto, by Franka Potente (The Bourne Identity). Plenty of questions still linger about Sonya Cross’s long-term viability as both a detective and a human (though Kruger has done an admirable job of dialing down the character’s tics), and Bichir occasionally struggles with the difference between beleaguered and Batman. But I’ll take the outlandish over the formulaic any day. Despite the best efforts of the industry, anarchy isn’t something you can breed out of television. Viva The Weird Bridge.