The second season of the FX drama might be too ambitious for its own good, but the ride is still pretty thrilling.
In its freshman season last year, FX’s The Bridge was one of those series where you applauded the effort, knowing that its failure to live up to its potential wasn’t a real crime as much as a minor disappointment. It came from the FX stable — and no channel is even as remotely audacious these days. In short, it was a big swing that resulted in a long, majestic foul ball — if baseball metaphors are a thing that work for you.
As season two starts Wednesday, the appraisal of ambition has never been as difficult as this. Critics love ambition. The farther a drama wants to move itself from a rote Law & Order setting the better. Bold ideas, dark strands, thrilling creative reaches — that’s what we want to see. Not enough shows even try. Many that do, fail; some are applauded for their effort, others mocked for their lame-ass attempts.
The Bridge in season two is one of those shows where you want to sit down with it and have a talk. As in, “Look, we wanted you to aim higher and go bigger, but this is ridiculous.”
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Though, in season one, The Bridge stuck to the serial-killer template of its Danish inspiration (Bron/Broen) — about a murder victim left on a bridge that connects Denmark and Sweden — and admirably modified that for American audiences by setting the story on the U.S.-Mexico border, it seemed, even then, too murky and ambitious for its abilities. But unlike shows that clearly don’t have the talent to tell the stories they are interested in, The Bridge was a damned fine drama that worked on many more levels than it faltered, so each week was part impressive attributes and part failed dreams. In short, it was a series that was uneven but worth the investment, particularly because a course correction was assured.
Well, about that. Let’s discuss.
In many ways, The Bridge is better in season two than in season one, but for some reason it decided to triple down on the plot and make the whole thing a complex web of interconnected stories, with each story having its own dense motivations and only rarely — in the early going — having a clarity of vision that will appeal to viewers. That is to say that The Bridge is confusing, muddled, ambitious but stunted — a victim of the drive critics tend to applaud. There has been chatter that The Bridge is somehow like The Wire in that it wants to connect a vast and confusing world to a number of narratives that, though distant in concept, all relate back to the big picture.
One word about that: no.
There was never a moment in The Wire when the series didn’t completely and with full confidence know where it was going and what it wanted to say. That is not a series you compare others to without reservations.
It’s far more fair to The Bridge to say that it’s a series that means well. It wants to please. It wants to be A Show About Something Big. The performances of Demian Bichir as Mexican detective Marco Ruiz and Diane Kruger as El Paso detective Sonya Cross hold the show together — though last season’s ill-advised idea to not reveal that Cross was autistic made Kruger look, in the first few episodes, like she was over-acting. Still, the show works best when south meets north and the complexities of corruption and the will to prosecute intertwine. The Bridge also has decided to keep El Paso reporters Daniel Frye (Matthew Lillard) and Adriana Mendez (Emily Rios) heavily in the mix, because there are sub-stories to delve into there, plus Annabeth Gish. By making everybody relevant on some level, The Bridge can seem as complicated as Game of Thrones, but much of that is just trickery (or excessive plotting). Unlike Thrones, which manages to be compelling despite an ungainly cast, The Bridge seems to struggle more when it spreads out storylines. But that struggle isn’t readily apparent — meaning the notion is noble and the execution works to a point, until it doesn’t. You’ll probably come to a point in The Bridge where the subplots seem more burdensome than rewarding, but it’s easy to forget how many dramas take absolutely no chances. So, it’s hard to castigate.
All of this might sound like season two of The Bridge is some kind of mess to be avoided. But that’s not true. We are just beginning the second season of a very challenging series. It may not have the mix down just yet — and that constricts its success — but at this rate The Bridge will figure out what works and what doesn’t and then it may be able to ascend to the elite level it desires. Just because a show tries too hard doesn’t make it a failure. The Bridge may, in fact, pull off this crazy juggling act of storylines by the end of the season. Don’t sleep on something so audacious. But at the same time, hope for future days of clarity.
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Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com