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. 
 

Then two promising things happened. First, the season wrapped up the serial killer arc with two episodes to spare, and devoted those concluding chapters to all the things the show had done well, including an exploration of the infamous Lost Girls of Juarez. Second, co-showrunner Meredith Stiehm left to go back to "Homeland" full time; Stiehm's an excellent writer, but this left "The Bridge" under the sole creative direction of Elwood Reid, who has publicly admitted on several occasions that the serial killer stuff wasn't where he should be concentrating going forward. 

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. 
 
It's an ambitious season, certainly, setting up an elaborate investigation into the cartel of Juarez drug lord Fausto Galvan (Ramon Franco, casually menacing at all times) that includes an El Paso bank, a Mexican conglomerate, our two favorite cops, a pair of angry DEA agents, other government agencies from both nations, odd couple reporting duo Daniel Frye (Matthew Lillard, in a terrific piece of career reinvention) and Adriana Mendez (Emily Rios), overmatched grifters Charlotte (Annabeth Gish) and Ray (Brian Van Holt), and — perhaps most importantly for the purposes of this new arc and direction — an inscrutable, dangerous cartel fixer named Eleanor Nacht (played in Mennonite drag by Franka Potente). 
 
There are a lot of moving parts, especially when you factor in leftover bits of business from last summer, like Marco's desire for revenge against the man who murdered his son, Sonya's attachment to the brain-damaged man who years ago killed her sister, or the way station for endangered Mexican women that employs the show's strangest character (which, for "The Bridge," is saying something) in Thomas Wright's Steven Linder. Reid and company do a good job of demonstrating how all the pieces are connected — structurally, the whole thing feels like "The Wire: El Paso," even if it doesn't come close to that show's power(*) — but the narrative is so diffuse and busy that the big moments don't tend to land even with the force of the better moments in season 1.  
 

(*) 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 sepinwall@hitfix.co