Many elements of FX's new crime drama "The Bridge" (it debuts tomorrow night at 10) may seem familiar. One of its two main characters, El Paso homicide detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) suffers (undiagnosed) from Asperger's syndrome, putting her into good, if socially clumsy, current company with the likes of Temperance Brennan on "Bones," Will Graham on "Hannibal" and both the Cumberbatch and Miller versions of Sherlock Holmes. It will spend most of its first season dealing with the pursuit by Cross and Mexican cop Hector Ruiz (Demián Bichir) of a baroque serial killer, which invites immediate comparisons to "Dexter," "Hannibal," the current season of "The Killing" and virtually every other serial killer-obsessed cop show of the moment. And it is, like "The Killing," a remake of a popular Scandinavian series, "Bron," which was set on the border between Denmark and Sweden.
But what makes "The Bridge" special, and potentially great, is an attribute more often applied to real estate than TV drama: location, location, location.
When Meredith Stiehm, the creator of "Cold Case" and one of the best writers on "Homeland" seasons 1 and 2, was tasked with adapting the series, the instructions were to begin on the bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, or another spot where America and Canada touch. But Stiehm and partner Elwood Reid had our other border in mind, and successfully argued to set their version in El Paso and Juárez. And that choice, and what Stiehm and Reid do with it, makes all the difference in helping "The Bridge" stand out.
So, yes, our heroes are chasing yet another serial killer who targets women (and, at times, men) and does unspeakable things to them, but it's a killer who's making a very specific socio-political point about the disparities between the city to the north of the border (which the killer notes averages 5 homicides a year) and the one to the south (where thousands die).
"Why is one dead white woman more important than so many just across the bridge?" he asks in a taunting message left for the cops. "How long can El Paso look away?"
Cross' difficulties demonstrating empathy or reading social cues, meanwhile, only become magnified when she has to partner up with Ruiz, a warm and outgoing man who comes from a completely different cultural context than the one she's used to. It's a buddy cop show pairing of opposites with a genuine reason for the two to mistrust and misunderstand each other.
And the series seems at least as interested in depicting its fictionalized take on the two border cities as it is in following Cross and Ruiz's investigation into the murders taking place in both.
Stiehm has told me that the goal is to turn "The Bridge" into a series dealing with all corners of life in El Paso and Juárez, using this series of murders as a way into that world in the same way "The Wire" used its initial drug investigation to tell the story of Baltimore as a whole. To that end, we meet not only the cops (including Ted Levine as the El Paso homicide lieutenant Hank Wade); but an El Paso trophy wife (Annabeth Gish) whose husband has been up to shady dealings across the border; a pair of reporters (Matthew Lillard and Emily Rios) looking into the killings while also letting us see the dire straits of the local news media; Ruiz's wife (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and son (Carlos Pratts), who cross the border each day to work and study at a Texas college; and Steven Linder (Thomas M. Wright), a sketchy character who lives in a desert trailer and has an intense interest in the women of Juárez.
The murder investigation touches many of these peoples' lives — Linder(*) is presented as an early suspect for the audience, if not for the cops — but there are also instant story possibilities raised by each character intersection, and by the way the series depicts its reluctant twin cities. Though much of the series is actually filmed in Southern California, there's an immediate sense of place to its version of El Paso, and especially to Juárez. Even if "The Bridge" were to stay a simple police story, there would be enormous promise just in the faulty assumptions each cop makes about the other: Ruiz works in a place where police corruption is treated as a given, while the Mexicans view Cross' department as dismissive and contemptuous of anything that happens on the wrong side of the bridge.
(*) Wright is an Australian actor who made an impression earlier this year as Elisabeth Moss' lover in the fantastic Sundance miniseries "Top of the Lake." Here, he's unrecognizable in bushy sideburns and speaking with a marble-mouthed American accent that makes him sound like... well, like a certain serial killer famously played by his new co-star Ted Levine. It's a big performance, to say the least, and how I feel about it will ultimately come down to whether or not he's the killer or a red herring.
It can't be overstated just how charming Bichir (Oscar-nominated a couple of years ago for "A Better Life") is as Ruiz, who lives a shambling but largely honest existence, just trying to get through another day (this case begins shortly after a vasectomy that gives him an amusing bowlegged walk), completely baffled by this strange American woman who's become his new partner. It's a marvelous, totally natural performance, and a necessary contrast to the iciness of Kruger as Sonya Cross.
The writers and Kruger are walking a very high and narrow tightrope with Sonya, whose particular brand of social clumsiness — extremely literal, brusque, unable to maintain eye contact without great effort — fits many Asperger's profiles, but which makes it questionable that this particular woman would rise as high as she has in the department, and be placed at the center of such a sensitive investigation. Sonya's also portrayed as intuitively brilliant, and it's clear that Hank has been protecting her for years, but Kruger commits to such an intense, remote take on the character that it feels on occasion like a miracle that she's even gotten this far, let alone that she'd be given this important assignment. Like a few other components of "The Bridge" (including a good ol' boy fellow El Paso detective who strays perilously close to caricature) Sonya feels like she could plummet off the rope at any moment, but she remains aloft through the first three episodes.
Our understanding of television storytelling, and the way we talk about it, has changed so much over the years that I often wonder how successful a serialized mystery story can be in this day and age. By the time Stiehm, Reid and company unveil the killer's identity and motives, odds are everyone who cares will have talked all the possibilities to death online, and will either be disappointed that it isn't someone they picked, or find it unsurprising if it is.
The way to work around that problem is to offer the audience so much beyond whodunnit that the mystery's resolution ultimately won't matter that much. With these characters, with this fascinating, complicated place — and one that's at the forefront of so much of what we're talking about in real world politics — and the sense of atmosphere instilled by directors like Gerardo Naranjo, "The Bridge" is off to such an outstanding start that I can't wait to see what this creative team does not only with the rest of the serial killer story, but well beyond it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com