By Steve Greene | Criticwire July 9, 2014 at 2:19PM
"Serial killer." It's a tricky, two-word phrase that, in the landscape of modern TV can mean unflinching critical acclaim, general ubiquity or, as in the case of the first season of FX's "The Bridge," an anchor keeping a show from reaching the status of transcendent drama. Based on a similarly-titled Scandinavian TV series, the American cable version centered around a murder investigation that spanned the border between El Paso, TX and the Chihuahua region. From difficult-to-read Detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) to ethically-murky Detective Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir) and a wide cast of journalists, cartel members and unwitting victims in between, the show's opening 13 episodes never lacked for plot.
But if there's one retrospective refrain in the reviews for season 2 of "The Bridge," it's that the story thread involving a string of murders ultimately sidetracked the week-to-week richness of its cultural setting. Exploring the cities and neighborhoods on opposite sides of the border (and shedding light on the violence against women in Ciudad Juarez, in particular) added some shading to the familiar detective elements. And while some argue that the show still is perhaps a bit too wide in its scope, it's a fertile setting that makes for a fascinating backdrop as 'The Bridge' searches for its most compelling throughlines.
Most critics seem to agree that one of the show's other continued strengths is Bichir's Ruiz, whose personal tragedies provided some emotional fuel for the first season's latter half. As the violence, sorrow and grittiness all congeal for another season-long run, time will tell if
Marco continues to be one of the show's highlights or if another clear favorite will emerge. (My money's on series newcomer and fresh primary antagonist Franka Potente.)
Season 2 of 'The Bridge' premieres tonight at 10pm on FX.
I liked "The Bridge" a lot at times in its first season, thanks to its actors (including Ted Levine as Sonya's boss and mentor, Lt. Hank Wade) and thanks to the weird energy Reid, Stiehm and the rest conjured up in depicting these two border towns. The serial killer story played as the unfortunate cost of admission into that world, and something the show would almost certainly improve on once it moved beyond. I can more easily recommend season 2 over season 1 — it's a show with a much stronger command of its subject matter and awareness of its own strengths and weaknesses — even as "The Bridge" still seems to be stuck in that nebulous border region separating the pretty good from the genuinely great.
The need to incorporate every character in the show's sprawling universe still takes its toll, resulting in episodes that sprint recklessly from storyline to storyline, making sure they're all moving in vaguely similar directions. FX sent out seven episodes of the new season to critics, more than half the season's run, and it's easy to see why. The early hours have the feeling of marking time and indulging in dark violence for the sake of having blood splatter frequently. But by episodes six and seven, the various storylines begin drawing closer together, and the show sets characters ping-ponging off of each other in ways that are occasionally thrilling. It's worth noting that nearly every single one of the show's storylines would be one of the best shows on TV if it were somehow a series unto itself.
What you have here is a show with a “Wire”-sized envy for epic sprawl and a “Breaking Bad”-like wish to sublimely portray repeat acts of evil. Remarkably, the writers find a slow-moving current by episodes 3 and 4, enough to capture the interest of only the most dedicated “Bridge” viewers and perhaps keep us moving through the season. A few problems nevertheless persist — mostly having to do with a music-video sense of surroundings (sad guitar twangs; tires on gravel roads; a nuevo-wavo, souvenir-shop idealizing of the creepy West) and a level of violence and gore that is right in line with other bloody cable dramas but often seems unnecessary and relentless. Sometimes it’s fun to get utterly lost in a drama like this; sometimes it’s better to turn around and keep driving.
Maybe the straightforward, entertaining mystery that could be discerned beneath all the baroque trappings was neglected because too much attention was going to the borderland atmosphere and cultural politics. And there was a lot of obvious heavy lifting going on to get past the Season 1 story line, which followed the Scandinavian series, and set up Season 2, which was billed as a direct, fictional take on the Lost Girls situation (in which hundreds of women and girls have been killed in the Ciudad Juárez area). In the early going, Season 2 is more of the same — teasingly effective but frustratingly unfocused.
The crazed-killer plotline of Season 1 wasn't the show's best aspect, and in Season 2, the storyline will expand to touch on the Juarez Drug War; the uneasy balance Marco tries to strike between staying in the good graces of a powerful drug cartel and the duties of his job; and Sonya's relationship with the brother of the man who killed her sister. That broader scope may prove to be an improvement in terms of how much deeper "The Bridge" can go in its cross-cultural storytelling. But the first two episodes of Season 2 are a bit all over the map.
As Mexican homicide detective Marco Ruiz, Bichir gives a quietly towering performance. He casts a strong sense of humanity and hurt across a series loaded up with heartless, sociopathic, and ultraviolent villains. His Marco is complex, a world-weary man who’s always on the verge of paralyzing cynicism — particularly after his son was murdered last season — but who always seems to rebound into compassion and action. Bichir never seems to hit a false note, with his brooding brow and his slow, raspy voice. Bichir makes Marco’s dynamic with his American partner, Diane Kruger’s Sonya Cross, more than just another in a long line of odd-couple TV detectives.