How ‘The Bridge’ rebuilt itself into the best show you’re not watching
In this Golden Glut of TV drama, it's hard for any new drama to break through and find an audience, because there are so many options out there (not to mention easy access to most of the great dramas of the previous 50 years). It's harder still for a show that has an audience and loses it to get those people back, no matter how good it becomes.
Case in point: FX's "The Bridge," the current belt-holder for Best Show You're Not Watching.
In season 1, the ratings weren't huge, but they were decent enough for FX to order a second season. The problem is that the original batch of episodes — translating the Scandinavian series "Broen" from the Denmark/Sweden border to the one dividing the U.S. and Mexico, complete with a relatively faithful rendering of that show's serial killer story — wound up turning a lot of viewers off as the season went along. Elwood Reid, who ran the show in the first season with Meredith Stiehm, and has run the second on his own, admits now that he quickly got bored with the serial killer plot (and stuck with it because they were hired to adapt the very successful "Broen"), and it showed in the work. The parts of the series that worked largely did so independently of the hunt for the killer, like the wary partnership between El Paso cop Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger, finding complexity inside Sonya's undiagnosed Asperger's tics) and her Juarez counterpart Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir, so charming and world-weary), the sense of atmosphere along the border, and the many strange people populating both sides of that border. (My favorite: Thomas M. Wright giving a mesmerizingly bizarre performance as Steven Linder, who started out as a red herring for the serial killer before being revealed as a coyote who spirits abused and endangered Mexican woman to safer refuge in Texas.)
Reid and Stiehm wrapped up the serial killer story with two episodes to spare, and used the remaining time to tease the second season they hoped to get. And though Stiehm returned to her previous job writing for "Homeland," Reid has been able to reinvent the show in a much more successful form. The season 1 arc has been alluded to a few times, but for the most part it's a new show(*) that, at its best, resembles "The Wire" in both its sprawl and its patience. Reid spun an elaborate web of stories this year, involving a rogue DEA agent hunting Juarez kingpin Fausto Galvan (the marvelously no-nonsense Ramon Franco), reporters Daniel Frye (Matthew Lillard in the best role of his career) and Adriana Mendez (Emily Rios, the perfectly dry foil for Lillard) following the cartel's money trail until it leads to a major Mexican conglomerate, and the search for Eleanor Nacht (Franka Potente, outstanding and strange as usual), a shunned Mennonite who works as Galvan's bookkeeper and leaves a trail of bodies behind her during a trip to El Paso.
(*) For that reason, where I usually say you need to watch every episode of a serialized drama, in this case I might suggest just sampling the pilot and episodes 12 & 13 from last year before jumping into the new season. That'll give you enough of the necessary backstory to follow what's happening, and you can always go back for the rest if it turns out you really like Sonya, Marco, Frye and company.
It was slow going at times in the season's early weeks, but by the mid-point, all the set-up began to pay off in thrilling and/or poignant fashion. The show is on a fantastic run of episodes right now (including tonight's, which airs, as usual, at 10 on FX).
Unfortunately, the ratings have been even lower this season (down about 39% among adults 18-49, and 32% among overall viewers). Every time I've praised the new episodes, I've heard from people who didn't like what they saw a year ago and chose not to come back. They're surprised to hear that it's been so much better.
I have no idea what FX is going to do with the show. Last year's renewal happened very late in the season (after 11 of 13 episodes had aired) even by FX's patient standards. I understand the abundance of choice right now, and people's reluctance to give many shows a first chance, let alone a second. But "The Bridge" is awfully good right now — too good to let go of.
Yesterday, I spoke with Reid about his decision to reinvent the show this year, the mistakes he felt he made in season 1, his hopes for the future, and more. It's a long conversation, and at times gets into plot developments that have already happened this season. If you're thinking about jumping in (or back in), you might want to save it to read later. But it's a very candid discussion about a show that has finally lived up to all the potential I saw in it a year ago.
Going into season 2, with Meredith gone back to "Homeland," this was your show to run. What approach did you want to take with it?
Elwood Reid: The approach was to right a wrong, to kind of reset the show. We were a serial killer show, tracking a serial killer, and tracking the original "Broen" series. And I knew you could not do another serial killer show. You probably could if there was an appetite for it, I didn't think that's what the show wanted to be. So I had to reset the show, which meant resetting our characters, giving you a little more of the world and then, for better or for worse, attempting to start to tell a very large story. I know early on, a lot of the critics — you included — were pointing out, "Well, it's a little slow. I don't know how it's going to tie together." That was always the plan. I was going to do the slow food version of TV. My hope was the payoff would be worth it.