The Bridge, Ep. 1.01: “Pilot” showcases assets and drawbacks of FX’s latest drama

The Bridge

The Bridge, Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”
Written by  Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid
Directed by Gerardo Naranjo
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on FX

“Pilotitis” is an umbrella term that connotes a wide variety of complaints typically leveled at pilots, from awkward bouts of exposition, to shoddy or simplistic characterization, to overplotting, but one underlying truth remains: pilots are hard as hell to pull off with any effectiveness. Over the last month, Sound on Sight staff have written a plethora of pieces about what they feel to be some of the best, but few qualify as truly flawless. FX happens to have an exceptionally recent record for drama pilots; Justified, The Americans and Terriers all boast inaugural episodes that establish setting, theme and character with grace and confidence, while managing to function splendidly as contained hours of television. (FX’s very first original drama, The Shield, features what most will agree is one of the best drama pilots ever in all of these regards.)

By those loft standards, The Bridge‘s pilot is considerably shakier, but thankfully, it’s not for a lack of ambition. While co-writers Meredith Stiehm (Homeland) and Elwood Reid (Hawaii Five-0, Cold Case) are adapting an exiting property (the Danish series Broen), and the series is superficially similar to a host of other contemporary police dramas (particularly The Killing, another remake of a Danish series), The Bridge blends a whole host of new ideas in with a host of familiar ones. Those jolts of originality go a long way towards wallpapering some of the clumsier aspects of this pilot.

On the international bridge connecting The US and Mexico – more specifically, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez – a body is discovered, bisected precisely on the borderline itself. As it turns out, there are actually two bodies, with the top half belonging to a white, fiercely anti-immigration judge, and the bottom half belonging to a then-identified Mexican woman. Mexican police Det. Marco Ruiz (Oscar nominee Demián Bichir) inevitably cross paths, and butts heads, with his American counterpart on the case, Det. Sonya North (Diane Kruger), a naturally complicated professional relationship further exacerbated by the fact that she very clearly has some form of Asperger’s, making her occasionally less than personable. Though Bichir and Kruger take up the lion’s share of the screentime, the dependably grizzled Ted Levine turns up as Det. North’s boss and father figure, along with a strong supporting cast (Annabeth Gish, Matthew Lillard, Emily Rios, Top of the Lake‘s Thomas M. Wright and Maria Full of Grace‘s Catalina Sandina Moreno) whose roles are for the most part just barely sketched out here; The Bridge is uninterested in showing us just how all of its seemingly disparate pieces fit together just yet.

The most encouraging thing about The Bridge‘s pilot is that its shortcomings, which are significant, aren’t beyond future correction. The most obvious lies with Det. North; while the Asperger’s angle is certainly a fresh angle from which to approach the cliché of the doggedly by-the-book detective, her tics and lack of emotional responsiveness are so severe that it’s difficult to imagine just how she managed to attain and secure her position in the first place. (The scene in which she “consoles” a grieving husband is particularly galling in this regard.) More broadly, at least at first blush, aspects of the series do feel awfully familiar, from the near-impossible levels of technological ingenuity showcased by the apparent perpetrators, to the elaborate staging of dismembered female bodies. If you’re suffering from serial-killer fatigue, you’ve been warned.

Thankfully, that last complaint may soon be proven a somewhat moot point. As The Bridge‘s pilot points out early and often, in Juarez, women have been murdered by the hundreds for decades; when North brings up the notion of a “serial killer,”  Ruiz can only shrug. The pilot’s greatest asset is Bichir, whose spectacularly balanced portrayal quickly informs us that Det. Ruiz isn’t a bad or corrupt cop by any means, but his sense of duty doesn’t necessarily far outstrip that of his fellow officers, many of whom have been compromised by the very forces responsible for committing the sort of violent crimes Det. North is so determined to solve, only on a much greater scale. Ruiz will wake up in the middle of the night to file paperwork, certainly, but if his family’s safety becomes an issue, his devotion to the task at hand may be forcibly, and quite rationally, tested.

It’s that ethically murky territory that will hopefully serve the series well going forward, placing it in line with The Americans as a genre series unafraid to toy with big moral and ideological questions that other series tend to elide for the sake of less conflicted viewer identification. That isn’t the only reason The Bridge might be facing an uphill battle for ratings: roughly half of this episode (as befits the characters and setting) is in subtitled Spanish, the most obvious viewer surrogate, Ruiz, isn’t American, and much of the series’ promotional material to date has been incredibly cryptic. (Recall the Terriers debacle.) One aspect that might help alleviate matters: the chemistry between Kruger and Bichir, which has an almost comic (but not too broad) tint, helping to make the strong sense of grimness go down a little easier. Then again, viewers hoping for a will-they-won’t-they dynamic may be disappointed; there’s absolutely no indication based on the pilot that Stiehm and Reed have any interest in that particular angle.

As directed by Gerardo Naranjo (Miss Bala), The Bridge is just as gritty and meticulously rendered as FX’s other prestige dramas; if anything, Naranjo’s eye for detail and cinematic flourishes ups the ante somewhat. Perhaps it’s the 90-minute slot lending him extra elbow room, but the way Naranjo lingers on unexpected moments and images is arresting throughout, from Levine’s awkward shoulder-bump ritual with Det. North, to the still observation of the El Paso electrical grid humming away ominously. These seemingly miniscule touches enhance the sense of specificity in both the performances and the setting, and hopefully future series directors follow suit to some degree. Though the writing and some aspects of the plotting are less assured than the visuals, The Bridge deserves a chance to iron out its kinks and, with some luck, earn a place alongside the rest of FX’s drama roster.

Simon Howell

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