Briarpatch Episode 1 Review: First Time in Saint Disgrace

The fully-formed Briarpatch pilot is a hard-boiled, yet quirk-filled mystery. Read our review!

This Briarpatch review contains spoilers.

Briarpatch Episode 1

After screening for critics and audiences at the Toronto Film Festival back in September, USA’s Briarpatch is finally here. The series, created by writer and pop culture commentator Andy Greenwald and executive produced by Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail, is the NBCUniversal sister network’s latest prestige play, and most promising new series since Esmail’s recently concluded thriller.

Adapted from Ross Thomas’ crime/mystery novel of the same name, Briarpatch centers on Allegra Dill, played by Rosario Dawson (wisely gender-swapped from the novel), a steely political fixer brought back to her small, corrupt hometown after the death of her sister Felicity, a policewoman. Felicity’s police cruiser went up in flames just after checking on some of her tenants; the young officer had just purchased a small apartment complex despite having a modest paying job. Allegra returns to investigate the mysterious circumstances of her sister’s passing, bringing her close to slew of suspicious, eccentric characters, and also a significant person from her past, rich playboy Jake Spivey. Spivey finds himself caught-up in crimes that are of interest to Allegra’s employer, a Texas Senator, and since she’s in town, she’s asked to depose him.

In Greenwald’s work as a critic, he always placed special emphasis on character building, and now that he’s on the other side of this industry, his priorities haven’t changed. San Bonifacio, the fictional Texas border town that serves as our setting, is teeming with colorful, memorable characters. You can sense that each person that enters the frame on Briarpatch has a wealth of history and personal ticks, from the main characters down to the fleeting extras. San Bonifacio instantly feels alive in the same way that famous TV towns like Twin Peaks, Pawnee, and Springfield do because such detail has been paid to its townspeople. 

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Dawson has always been a compelling screen presence and she’s electric here. Allegra is no-nonsense and wryly sarcastic, clearly less than thrilled to be back in her old stomping grounds. It’s also clear that her tough exterior is a product of necessity. Besides dealing with the painful loss of her sister, a tragic backstory is hinted at, and Dawson carries that weight on her shoulders even when she’s confidently strutting in a fierce white pant suit. Plus, she delivers Bogart-worthy detective dialogue just as smoothly as post-modern genre-skewering jokes.

The other clear standout is Mad Men alum Jay R. Ferguson, rescued from network sitcom hell and finally given some work worthy of his talents. He plays Spivey, a wealthy good ol’boy with nefarious connections and a complicated history with Allegra. From the minute he and Dawson share the screen, their chemistry crackles and pops like an M80. Ferguson is clearly having a blast here, playfully flirting with Allegra even while evading her crosshairs.

Briarpatch threads the needle so deftly between quirky ensemble dramedy and pot-boiler mystery. The odd ingredients, like the break-in at the zoo, Allegra and the Senator’s intimate relationship, and Detective Colder’s teary eyed instance that Felicity loved him, intriguingly rub up against the episode’s more menacing hints that something truly awful is afoot. That feeling is all but confirmed when Allegra finally gets inside what is supposed to be her sister’s apartment and finds Chief of Detectives Strucker waiting for her. After close examination, Allegra is able to deduce that the apartment couldn’t have been where her sister lived, due to the lack of tarragon and books. It’s little details like this that instantly makes the Briarpatch pilot pop.

When confronted with Allegra’s findings, Strucker offers to show Pick (her nickname) where her sister actually lived. Before Pick can get in Strucker’s car, Felicity’s friend lawyer A.D. Singe, uses French to warn Pick not to go with the man. As they begin walking away, Strucker’s car explodes just like Felicity’s with the lawman sitting inside. At the hospital after the explosion, director Ana Lily Amirpour wisely stays tight on Dawson’s face, as the gravity of the moment finally overwhelms Pick. It’s one of many of the director’s flashy, but not distracting stylistic flourishes. The neon-drenched nights contrast well with the sunblasted days.

Just one episode in, everyone and anyone feels like a suspect in Felicity’s murder. Reviewing TV for sites like Grantland, Greenwald routinely took a magnifying glass to the decade’s finest programs, such as Breaking BadMad Men, and Game of Thrones, becoming an authority on how and why these series were so successful, both narratively and with audiences. Here, the student appears to have put his notes to good use. The pilot of Briarpatch is so strong and engrossing, I can’t wait to see what comes next. 

Portions of this recap are repurposed from our spoiler-free review. 

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Nick Harley is a tortured Cleveland sports fan, thinks Douglas Sirk would have made a killer Batman movie, Spider-Man should be a big-budget HBO series, and Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson should direct a script written by one another. For more thoughts like these, read Nick’s work here at Den of Geek or follow him on Twitter.