For most of its first season, FX's "The Bridge" seemed as caught between two worlds as its two heroes, who worked opposite sides of the El Paso/Juarez border. In one world, the show was stuck adapting the serial killer story from the original Scandinavian "Bron," and not providing a particularly inspired take on an overdone subject. In the other world, "The Bridge" was having a lot of fun looking at the weird culture along that border, and in establishing the bond between Texas cop Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) and her Mexican counterpart Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir). The second show was much more interesting than the first, but the first show kept swallowing the second one whole.
In a letter to critics that accompanied a large batch of episodes from season 2 (it returns tomorrow night at 10), Reid wrote, "We loved the characters and story of 'Bron' and stayed relatively true to the original story, which was centered around the hunt for a serial killer. That said, the serial killer thread was not the most interesting aspect of our adaptation. The most interesting thing to us has always been the shadow world of the border between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. And that will be the focus of 'The Bridge,' this season and beyond."
In its first season, "The Bridge" wasn't great, but it had moments suggesting it was capable of greatness. The hope in a situation like this is that the behind-the-scenes upheaval, combined with Reid's public acknowledgment of the show's strengths and weaknesses, would bring the show closer to greatness, if not all the way there. But the new season (I've seen the first five episodes) feels more consistent without feeling like a significant improvement. It's become more of the show that it should be, but still smacks of potential more than anything else.
(*) Then again, almost nothing of consequence has happened five episodes into any given "Wire" season — which means that we could get to the end of the season with my opinion significantly higher than it is at this point.
The serial killer arc was formulaic and annoying, but it also kept the show streamlined enough that you could savor the character beats, whether the unlikely bond between Sonya (rubbing the world the wrong way due to undiagnosed Asperger's syndrome) and Marco (earthy and gregarious, and also morally compromised in a way Sonya wouldn't allow herself to be), or Daniel Frye's struggle with his own addictions, or Linder's creepy yet sweet attachment to Eva (Stephanie Sigman), one of the women he rescued from a bad situation in Juarez.
These stories and more continue in the new season, yet they feel like distractions from the main plot — or vice versa. This is an intrinsically more compelling and germane main story arc than the serial killer nonsense, yet the show's best moments are still the ones that have the least to do with it. We get to see more of Sonya as a sexually bold but socially clumsy woman(**), and the show sparks to weird, wonderful life whenever Linder wanders through with his stiff movements and thick-as-molasses voice, even though his corner of the story is only tenuously connected to what's happening with the cops, the reporters and Eleanor Nacht.
(**) You wouldn't ordinarily think to compare Diane Kruger and Jason Alexander, but there's a moment in the season premiere where Sonya seems to turn into George Costanza while with a confused male partner.
And without giving too much away, it does feel like in Eleanor, the show has traded in one larger-than-life villain for another. Because this one is played by Franka Potente, and because Reid and company have given Eleanor so many unusual tics (maybe too many, but we'll see how she turns out in the end), it's much more entertaining to watch her wreak havoc along the border than it was to sit through the puppet master games of David Tate in season 1. But she also comes across less as an example of the show exploring that shadow world of the border than of the show needing a colorful antagonist to keep the plot moving.
I liked "The Bridge" a lot at times in its first season, thanks to its actors (including Ted Levine as Sonya's boss and mentor, Lt. Hank Wade) and thanks to the weird energy Reid, Stiehm and the rest conjured up in depicting these two border towns. The serial killer story played as the unfortunate cost of admission into that world, and something the show would almost certainly improve on once it moved beyond.
I can more easily recommend season 2 over season 1 — it's a show with a much stronger command of its subject matter and awareness of its own strengths and weaknesses — even as "The Bridge" still seems to be stuck in that nebulous border region separating the pretty good from the genuinely great.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org