'The Bridge' review: FX delivers summer's best new drama

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bridge-demian-bichir-diane-kruger-fx.jpgFX adds another bold, gritty and compelling drama to their stable of shows with "The Bridge," starring Academy Award nominee Demian Bichir ("A Better Life") and SAG Award nominee Diane Kruger ("Inglourious Basterds").

That unexpectedly brilliant odd couple casting is just the first clue this isn't your average cop drama, despite the fact that Bichir plays Detective Marco Ruiz from Juarez, Mexico and Kruger plays Detective Sonya Cross from El Paso, USA.

Ruiz and Cross start off on awkward footing when they meet over the body of a dead woman on the Mexico-US border. But many things -- including the body -- are not exactly what they appear and soon enough Ruiz and Cross find themselves working together to crack the case.

She's by the book, he likes to bend the rules. They spar and banter and investigate leads. So far, so familiar. But "The Bridge" is a perfect example of how smart choices in writing, acting and directing can transform something potentially musty and uninspired into fresh and gripping serial drama.

bridge-annabeth-gish-fx.jpg"The Bridge" is based on a Scandinavian series with the same title and murder-on-the-borderline concept -- so even setting aside comparisons to recent crime dramas including "The Killing," "Top of the Lake" and the upcoming "Broadchurch," the approach of a season-long investigation is not original -- but we still haven't really seen a show quite like it in America. Relations between US and Mexico go largely ignored in pop culture and the disparity between the respective justice and law enforcement systems is fertile, if potentially controversial, territory.

That's not to say "The Bridge" is stuffy or preachy or a drag of any kind. It's often downright pulpy, and that's a huge part of the appeal. The pilot -- written by executive producers Meredith Stiehm ("Homeland," "Cold Case") and Elwood Reid ("Hawaii Five-0") and directed by Gerardo Naranjo ("Miss Bala") -- sets up multiple mysteries beyond the body.  Tantalizing subplot involve a shady drifter ( Thomas M. Wright, who coincidentally also appeared in "Top of the Lake" in a very different role) with a habit of picking up prostitutes, a Texas trophy wife ( Annabeth Gish) who discovers secrets about her husband and an alcoholic journalist ( Matthew Lillard), who becomes the focal point of a bravura edge-of-your-seat suspense sequence.

At the core of it all are Bichir and Kruger, two actors who don't fit into the typical Hollywood mold. They're both attractive and charismatic screen presences, and the very foreignness that likely pigeonholes them as "exotic" (he's a Mexican native, she's German) in most casting sessions makes each of them a perfect fit here.

Bichir is not only permitted to perform scenes in Spanish (some of them opposite another Oscar nominee, Catalina Sandino Moreno of "Maria Full of Grace," as his wife) but also nails the authentic vibe of a Mexican citizen harboring mixed feelings about both his job and his homeland.

bridge-matthew-lillard-fx.jpgWhile Kruger plays an American, she's also tasked with playing a stranger in a strange land, and not just when Cross visits Mexico. She has Asperger's, and the unexplained syndrome causes even more friction with her new partner. The high-functioning eccentric calls to mind Claire Danes' celebrated work on "Homeland," though Kruger is as still and inward as Danes is frantic and explosive.

The savvy casting extends to the previously mentioned supporting players Wright, Gish, Lillard and Moreno, plus Ted Levine as Cross' boss/father figure and Emily Rios ("Friday Night Lights," "Breaking Bad") as a junior colleague of Lillard's self-absorbed veteran.

"The Bridge" sets the bar high with its early episodes -- it's easily the best new show of the summer so far. Here's hoping the rest of the season follows suit.
Photo/Video credit: FX