I find I’m a lot more forgiving of FX’s new drama “The Bridge” now that I know it is an adaptation of the Scandinavian drama “Bron.” So much of enjoying the show hinders on how easy a viewer can move past the layers of hard-to-believe plot points. Judging by a brief overview of “Bron’s” pilot, however, much of the story stayed the same, only now, the action has been Americanized. The “bridge” in question is no longer the Øresund Bridge, which connects Copenhagen, Denmark, to Malmö, Sweden, but the Bridge of the Americas connecting El Paso, Texas, to Ciudad Jurez, Mexico. Slack can be given to creators Meredith Stiehm (“ER,” “Cold Case”) and Elwood Reid (“Cold Case,” “Hawaii 5-0”) — they’re staying faithful to the original set-up. But not everything transfers over smoothly.
It all begins with a body — two bodies, actually, left on the Bridge of the Americans overlapping the U.S.-Mexico border. The top half of an American woman is in El Paso; the bottom half of a Hispanic woman is in Mexico. El Paso homicide detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) has jurisdiction, but so does Chihuahua state police detective Marco Ruiz (Demin Bichir, “Weeds”). The bodies’ discovery is more than a set of murders; it is a statement, and one a so-far anonymous killer is behind. A message the presumed killer delivers via a fake-out bomb plant in an El Paso newspaper reporter’s (Matthew Lillard) car is that not enough attention is paid to not only the disparity of deaths on either side of the border, but the lack of public awareness about the crisis.
El Paso has quite a low violent crime rate; Jurez is one of the most deadly cities in the world. All of Mexico, in fact, has seen incredible, atrocious violence thanks largely to the drug war. Between Jan. 1, 2007, and June 5, 2009, the country saw 10,031 drug war-related deaths, 2,550 of them in Chihuahua. Additionally, a large number of female homicides has coincided with the above deaths, a trend alluded to in “The Bridge’s” pilot by a Texas sheriff. Upon finding the bottom half of the American woman’s body on the side of the road and learning her top half was matched with a missing Hispanic woman’s bottom half, he sarcastically states that all those pink crosses sure did a lot of good. Homicides in Juarez dropped significantly in 2012, at least, and perhaps the war against cartels truly is waning. It still isn’t as safe as El Paso, so there still is attention due to the problem. But is “The Bridge” the right kind of attention?
If the kind of violence we are talking about here already includes “flayed faces, headless corpses and acid baths,” does the topic need additional theatrics to be studied? Do we need a new serial killer creating “Hannibal”-like (albeit not as crazy) scenes to send a message? “The Bridge” isn’t a documentary, sure, and neither is “Bron.” A cursory look at the Scandinavian series’ Wikipedia page states that the killer overseas pulls the bridge stunt to call attention to a variety of social problems. (Any viewers of “Bron” who would like to shed light on the issues at hand are welcome to; I haven’t researched the series as to avoid potential spoilers.) Moving that idea stateside, it makes sense the creators would pick the U.S.-Mexico border over U.S.-Canada, although the latter could be more interesting simply because it would be unexpected. But the violence in Jurez isn’t an issue easily swept under the rug, at least not for those who pay attention to the news. Perhaps the hardest notion to believe is that Cross wouldn’t be familiar with the violence raging just across the border. Ruiz has to explain to her the phenomenon of the missing women. Maybe — maybe — there’s someone somewhere in El Paso who is unaware of Juarez’s track record, but it certainly would not be a detective.
As Cross, Kruger appears to be giving Claire Danes of “Homeland” a run for her Emmy money. Indeed, we have another beautiful, blonde, work-focused detective (Danes plays a CIA agent) who has trouble relating to others/expressing herself thanks to the way her brain works. Instead of Bipolar disorder, however, Cross has Asperger’s, which makes for a difficult time working cases, especially when she has to notify the American woman’s husband of his wife’s brutal death. She doesn’t know how to empathize — at the scene of the crime, she refuses to let an ambulance carrying a man having a heart attack cross the bridge because it might damage the crime scene — and apparently, she is only surviving as a detective thanks to her protector of a boss, Lieutenant Hank Wade (Ted Levine). He supports her, and gently reminds her to remember to change her shirt in the ladies room, not in the middle of the police station, as well as to be nice to the deceased’s husband. That he lets her deliver such news, knowing she can seem cold and uncaring, shows a lack of judgment on his part. He also appears to be the only one who knows about her disorder; everyone else just thinks she is crazy and “different.” Wade lets Cross know he is planning to retire, though, and if he goes, so goes her security.
Ruiz is the opposite of Cross, calm and friendly and, again, aware of just how messy life in Juarez can be. He quickly figures something is different about Cross, and in the pilot at least he exhibits patience as the two have to begin to work together to solve the murders. We get a quick sense of the detectives’ personal lives; Ruiz has a wife and son, the latter whom he chides for casually smoking pot because he doesn’t consider where those drugs come from or to whom he is possibly now indebted. He is surrounded by corruption and death — a case concerning nine heads found in the City Hall parking lot needs to be addressed, so it is natural for him to fear the worst. He has seen it. Cross is likely alone, having lost a sister for reasons not explained. Both actors do a fine job filling out their characters quickly, Kruger being as off-putting as Bichir is likeable. The purpose of other characters is less clear, such as Annabeth Gish’s Charlotte, a rich and newly widowed Texan whose husband (the same one from the ambulance, who lived long enough to tell his wife he no longer loved her) was hiding some secret on their ranch. The character Steven Linder (Thomas M. Wright, “Top of the Lake”) is mostly seen and not heard. We assume he was the one responsible for dumping the bodies on the bridge — a trick pulled by someone able to shut down the power for a short period and drive away in time — and later, he kidnaps a woman in Mexico and brings her back across the border in the trunk of his car for reasons that can’t be good.
Linder’s motives hopefully will soon become clear, and the U.S.-Mexico border is a subject ripe for drama. An “us versus them” theme is established early on, as the different detectives, only a couple of feet apart, look at each other from across the border, the American and Mexican flags flying in the background on their respective sides. The American woman found on the bridge was a judge, one described as anti-immigration and even anti-Mexican. That she is the one cut in half and displayed on the bridge is no accident, and “The Bridge” built enough tension to present an engaging whodunit that is a welcome addition to the summer’s lineup. But the irony of the series, which doubtfully will be as strong as FX’s true gem “Justified,” is that its set-up will only serve to distract viewers from the reality of life on the border.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.