Review: Love murder mysteries? TV takes big swings at the genre in ‘Briarpatch,’ ‘Interrogation’
When, nearer to the end of all things, there is only one show left on television, odds are it will be a mystery. As current TV, film, novels and now podcasts daily demonstrate, nothing compels human attention like a murder, its solution and the hopeful delivery of justice.
There are as many ways to frame that progress as there are ways to tell any story, from the highly comic to the deadly serious, the dry to the delirious, the old-fashioned to the postmodern. All can work. Two new television series premiering Thursday, “Briarpatch” on USA and “Interrogation” from CBS All Access, take far different swings at it, with good results.
For the record:
2:19 PM, Feb. 07, 2020A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the “Interrogation” finale would premiere at a later date. All 10 episodes are now streaming.
In “Briarpatch,” Rosario Dawson plays Allegra Dill, returning home in a big-city, high-fashion pantsuit to the Texas border town of San Bonifacio. She has come after the bombing death of her sister, a police detective, in the series’ first few minutes. It is also, coincidentally, the week of her high school reunion, her birthday and — perhaps less than coincidentally — the site of some business in which Allegra, an investigator for a Senate subcommittee, is involved and which in turn concerns her old friend/flame Jake Spivey (Jay R. Ferguson), once poor, now the richest man in town.
Adapted by Andy Greenwald from a novel by Ross Thomas, the series is a comedy at heart. It leads with quirk: a man with no pants on; a shop that sells guns, tops and yo-yos; zoo animals on the loose. San Bonifacio is less a real sort of place than a box to hold a cast of characters and old-school institutions. It’s a small town in essence and yet big enough support a luxury hotel, a print newspaper, a zoo, big abandoned buildings for bad things to happen in.
In “Mad Men,” “The Conners,” “Twin Peaks” and now “Briarpatch,” Jay R. Ferguson — and his beard — have been familiar sights on TV.
There is room for the very rich and the very poor — class as an expression of power is an issue throughout. There’s a police chief (Kim Dickens), a laid-back lawyer in a Hawaiian shirt (Edi Gathegi), a senator with his eye on the White House (Gerardo Celasco), a cynical newspaperman (John Aylward) and a lot of people Allegra hasn’t seen since high school. (“Your hair is different,” observes one. “It’s flatter, kinda. Guess you heard I got divorced.”)
Formally composed and carefully lighted, “Briarpatch” at times recalls “Fargo,” “Twin Peaks” and David Byrne’s “True Stories” — it’s no surprise to find that Sam Esmail, of the visually exacting “Mr. Robot,” is an executive producer, or that Greenwald himself was a producer on the highly stylized “Legion.” Though one wonders at first whether form will swallow content, “Briarpatch” quickly lets down its hair to become engaging and involving. Characters flirt with type but finally come across as original and real and thus worth caring about, while the performances are first rate, rooted in decades of film history but individual and modern at the same time.
And where the work of noir stories is often to strip away a veneer of goodness to show the venality beneath, to play in the upside-down areas where every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints, something close to the opposite seems to be happening here: Beneath the machinations of what seems a thoroughly corrupt town that carries on, as Allegra says, “behind God’s back,” forces for good are beetling away.
There is an out-and-out villain — Alan Cumming’s smiling sociopath, whom Allegra’s bosses are trying to bring down — along with various dirty-handed fools and power-seekers. But there are heroes here, if complicated ones with messy pasts, and notwithstanding Jake’s observation that the bad guys usually get away with things, one does not expect “Briarpatch” to end sourly; in our current socio-emotional climate, this is something to seize upon. (They’re tonally distinct series, but “Briarpatch” hits some of the same moral notes as the Elmore Leonard-derived “Justified,” to similar satisfaction.) The show is a romance in more ways than one.
Things are much less colorful (and also less black-and-white) in “Interrogation,” a new CBS All Access series. Created by John Mankiewicz and Anders Weidemann and based, like “Dragnet,” on actual events with the names changed to protect, you know — a wayward San Fernando Valley teenager (Kyle Gallner) is convicted of his mother’s murder but continues to proclaim his innocence — it takes a novel stab at a cold-case drama. The middle eight of its 10 episodes are meant to be watched in any order.
This is meant to mirror, as a title card tells us repeatedly, the nonlinear way in which detectives follow evidence in re-investigating old crimes, and though it does obviously change the order in which information is revealed, it all takes you to the same place. (Each episode, named for the character on which it focuses, is nonlinear on its own, anyway). The series begins more or less at the beginning and finishes more or less at the end, and one’s initial feelings about the characters tend to be the right ones, in part because whatever their real-world antecedents, they also conform to familiar fictional types: the overreaching, cocksure detective (Peter Sarsgaard); the floundering father (David Strathairn); the bad companion (Kodi Smit-McPhee); the better bad companion (a terrific Ebon Moss-Bachrach); the dogged private eye (Andre Royo).
The show can be a little overheated, especially toward the top, but at most moments, something interesting is going on on-screen, and there are some fine, subtle performances among a smattering of less subtle ones. (As an internal affairs investigator, Vincent D’Onofrio is a grounding presence.)
Still, 10 hours is a long time to spend suspended in such circular storytelling. This is the chance the series takes, coming at the same material from different angles: After four or five episodes, even randomly chosen, you’ll have a pretty complete understanding of the characters and situations. (In spite of its characters’ contrary accounts, “Interrogation” has a discernible point of view toward the facts in question.) Instead of picking their way through the entirety of “Briarpatch” — a briar patch being, of course, something to pick your way through — some might watch half or a third of “Interrogation” before fast-forwarding to the finale. Not that I’m telling you to, and definitely not what you’re meant to do. But in this case, I think, allowable.
When: 10 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17)
Where: CBS All Access
When: Any time, starting Thursday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
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