The new noir anthology series Briarpatch, which airs on USA next year, starts off with a literal bang. A young policewoman named Felicity Dill leaves her apartment and gets into her car. The car explodes, killing her. Roll credits.
The mystery of Felicity’s death, and the deeper corruption that lies beneath the surface of the small Texas town of San Bonifacio is the catalyst for season one of the series created by TV critic Andy Greenwald and produced by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail. The first two episodes of the show premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and together present a tight, very promising sample of what’s to come for the rest of the season.
The show follows Felicity’s sister, Allegra “Pickle” Dill (Rosario Dawson), a political fixer who returns to her hometown to solve her sister’s murder. She’s also working on behalf of her senator boss (Gerardo Celasco) to investigate a criminal conspiracy, which involves shady local millionaire—and Allegra’s old high school buddy—Jake Spivey (Jay R. Ferguson). Both mysteries are more complex, and more dangerous, than they first seem.
Briarpatch is based on Ross Thomas’ pulpy 1984 thriller of the same name, and is characterized by the same kind of whip-smart dialogue you might expect from a good noir story, but set in a hot and sunny desert town. David Lynch is also a clear influence on the show, with many of the townspeople exhibiting Twin Peaks-like characteristics, and an adoration for local food that also seems a little familiar (tamales and ice cream are the stand-ins here for pie and coffee).
That’s to say nothing of show’s affection for surreal visuals. Someone blew the locks off the cages at the local zoo, and the escaped animals roam the streets of San Bonifacio like they own the place. A coked-up, neon-tinged dance sequence in episode two, set to The Units’ synth-pop classic “High Pressure Days,” at first feels out of sync with the southwestern vibe the show’s given off, but blasts such bizarre WTF energy, and is intercut so well with the rest of the action that you can’t help but admire it.
Beyond any base-level Lynch comparisons, however, Briarpatch is still very much its own thing, creating a fully-realized setting and vivid characters right off the bat. The pilot, directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, gets right into the action, and quickly introduces the strong, no-nonsense Allegra, along with the show’s odd mix of visual styles, which fits Amirpour’s sensibilities like a pair of good cowboy boots.
In a way, the show feels like a clever twist on USA’s one-time status as the “blue skies” network. The skies are bright and sunny, but what’s happening beneath them is anything but. Dawson’s Allegra walks through dusty, empty streets sporting impeccable pantsuits and heels. Exotic taxidermy looms over bars and bedrooms, and even adorns the front of a truck. Allegra encounters a pair of giraffes wandering around Spivey’s mansion, and makes a crack about them invading his property, only to learn they are actually his personal giraffes.
Greenwald, for his part, proves to be a crackerjack hand at writing for TV, not just about it. In a departure from the source novel, he’s made his heroine female, and a person of color. She’s also smart and steely as hell, in control of her situation more often than not, and able to take a lick (and throw back blows of her own) just as easily as Humphrey Bogart might. Greenwald also has an ear for memorable dialogue, with his characters casually tossing off great one-liners practically every other sentence.
Dawson proves to make a great noir heroine, shooting out Greenwald’s razor-sharp lines like it’s nothing. Ferguson hams it up a bit as Spivey, but it’s a believable level of ham, equal parts wheeler-dealer and good ‘ol boy. Edi Gathegi makes a solid, slightly shifty sidekick as Felicity’s former lawyer, and Allegra’s ally, A.D. Singe. The always-welcome Kim Dickens shows up as a chief of police who radiates geniality, but may not be as trustworthy as she’d like Allegra to think.
From its sun-scorched setting to its diverse cast, Briarpatch is committed to creating a noir thriller that doesn’t look like what we’re used to seeing. Andy Greenwald, Sam Esmail and company seem to have a clear vision for the world and tone they’re trying to create, and it’s thrilling to see a show so aware of what it wants to do (and so good at accomplishing it) so early in its existence. Hopefully, viewers will be just as quick to catch on when it hits screens next year.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
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