Review: CBS' 'The Bridge'
As the American broadcast networks have tried to find a financially-viable way to air scripted programming in the summer, they’ve frequently tried reaching beyond our borders for help. Foreign shows, whether straight-up imports or co-productions where the American network shares the cost, are a lot cheaper, and can justify the lower ratings that come in summer. So far, though, only one particular type of foreign series has really resonated with American audiences:
Canadian police dramas.
CBS is now airing the third season of “Flashpoint,” which has been such a sturdy performer that the network has on occasion aired it during the regular season. ABC’s “Rookie Blue” (“Grey’s Anatomy” with cops) has been one of this summer’s few scripted success stories (though airing after “Wipeout” certainly doesn’t hurt, since public appetite seems bottomless for people going splat into mud pits). If CBS’ “The Bridge” (which has a two-hour debut Saturday at 8) is a hit, we’ll officially have a trend, and you’d better be ready for more shows where the cops are called “Constable” and the streets look really clean.
I’m not so sure about the prospects for “The Bridge,” though. It has an unusual premise and a strong lead performance by Aaron Douglas, but not all the execution is great, and it feels like it’s on the wrong network, on the wrong night.
“Flashpoint,” though it was made for CTV up north, is a classic CBS-style show: solidly-crafted, self-contained, meat-and-potatoes storytelling with clear heroes and villains. Some episodes are more memorable than others (the season premiere, in which a member of the team accidentally stepped on a landmine, was a terrific combination of suspense and pathos), but mostly it’s reliable comfort food.
“The Bridge” is something else entirely. Douglas, who was the excitable deck chief on “Battlestar Galactica,” plays Frank Leo, a veteran beat cop who becomes involved in his local police union when he sees some of his colleagues getting less than a fair shake from the department brass. In the course of his improbable rise from rank-and-file cop to union boss, Frank comes into conflict with the chief of police (veteran character actor Michael Murphy), Internal Affairs cops and other high-ranking officials who want to see him humbled and discredited, and even his own father (“Rockford Files” alum Stuart Margolin), who himself has a long history as a police union organizer.
It’s a more serialized show than CBS usually does these days (at least, the two episodes debuting Saturday are). And while the “CSI” shows feature some amount of department in-fighting, it’s never to this degree. Most network cop shows, including CBS’, operate under the A Few Bad Apples philosophy, where police departments are perfect aside from the handful of corrupt and/or incompetent cops whom our heroes can scold from time to time. Though “The Bridge” does feature an early story arc about a (very) crooked cop, the show as a whole is closer in worldview to HBO’s late, great “The Wire.” It suggests that institutions like police departments can become unwieldy, if not rotten, simply due to age and size, and that true change is difficult (if not impossible) to affect because there are too many people in entrenched positions who only care about protecting their turf and maintaining the status quo.
In Saturday’s second episode, an angry Frank gestures at police headquarters and asks, “You think this can’t be pulled down?” But there’s a sense that for all of Frank’s passion and innate political savvy, there’s only so much he can do.
Of course, having a similar worldview to “The Wire” doesn’t automatically make “The Bridge” remotely as good as the greatest drama in American TV history, police or otherwise. Douglas is suitably angry and charismatic as Frank, and “The Bridge” is worth sampling just to see him work. But the storytelling is very rushed - Frank goes from cop to union rep to union chief in an eyeblink, and in the midst of being the target of an Internal Affairs probe, at that - and Frank is, in the early stages, the only interesting, three-dimensional character the show has.
Perhaps this isn’t surprising. One of the series’ executive producers is ex-cop Craig Bromell, upon whom Frank is loosely based. Though he’s not the show’s head writer - Alan Di Fiore from “Da Vinci’s Inquest” wrote both of Saturday’s episodes - shows adapted from the life of a producer sometimes take on a tunnel-visioned view of that life.
CBS, unsurprisingly, doesn’t seem to know what to do with a show that at first glance looks like so many other shows on its schedule but at heart is nothing like them. So rather than pair it with “Flashpoint” on Fridays, “The Bridge” starts out on Saturdays, which is usually the night where networks send failed shows they need to recoup an investment on by airing leftover episodes in a no-expectations timeslot.
I don’t want to complain about an original series on a night that’s usually barren of them, particularly one with such a strong lead performance and some promising elements that need time and room to grow. But “The Bridge” strikes me as a show CBS bought because it was cheap, and because of the success the network had with “Flashpoint,” only to realize that the finished product isn’t what they had in mind.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org