USA Network was never known for having the sort of prestige dramas that cable networks like FX and AMC have routinely produced, but after the success of idiosyncratic psychological thriller Mr. Robot and anthology mystery series The Sinner, that perception is starting to change. Briarpatch, the new drama series adapted from Ross Thomas’ crime/mystery novel of the same name and executive produced by Robot’s Sam Esmail, could be the new breakout hit that cements the NBCUniversal sister network as serious players in the ever-expanding TV content wars.
Created by writer and pop culture commentator Andy Greenwald, Briarpatch feels like a TV obsessive’s Platonic ideal of a Peak TV drama, and that’s probably because it is. Reviewing TV for sites like Grantland, Greenwald routinely took a magnifying glass to the decade’s finest programs, such as Breaking Bad, Mad 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 has become the master. The pilot of Briarpatch is so strong and engrossing that it was invited to be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival alongside the fall’s most anticipated, award-chasing films.
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. Suspiciously, Felicity took out a hefty life insurance policy three weeks before her death, and she was harboring other wealth that suggested she was on the take. Though Allegra’s return is unfortunate, it’s serendipitous; Allegra also needs to depose an old friend who has valuable information on a wanted gun runner. Allegra’s boss, a Texas Senator, is hoping to take down the wanted man to legitimize his presidential aspirations. Allegra attempts to do her boss’ dirty work while investigating the suspicious circumstances of her sister’s death, all while escaped animals from the local zoo run amok around her. Wild stuff.
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.
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 Jacob Spivey, a rich 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 and Spivey feels like an instant career-defining role for the actor. No one will be missing Stan Rizzo once they see our man dancing around his neon-lit, opulent mansion.
Briarpatch threads the needle so deftly between quirky ensemble dramedy and pot-boiler mystery. One minute you’ll be laughing at the specificity of one of its eccentric Southern characters, the next you’ll feel the danger and seediness that’s lurking just off-screen. On top of that, the entire thing looks gorgeous. Director Ana Lily Amirpour makes you feel the hazy heat in her tight close-ups and highlights San Bonifaco’s empty storefronts with some well-timed wide shots. Also, her use of color makes the neon lights shine like diamonds.
After two episodes, everyone and anyone feels like a suspect in Felicity’s murder, and I already feel both attached, yet suspicious enough of all of these interesting characters to be looking forward to the show’s 2020 premiere. If Briarpatch can keep this tone balanced and the temperature up without getting lost in the thick of it, this could be the show everyone is talking about in 2020.
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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.