TV has its true procedurals, its “Law & Order” and “CSI” variants, but for many other series crime-solving is just a kind of narrative scaffolding, there to support what’s fundamentally a drama about interesting characters or communities. The long and short cases in “Justified” can be involving, but are all really an excuse to enjoy the pleasure of Raylan Givens’ (Timothy Olyphant) company and the Harlan County setting. The serial killers that crop up in “Hannibal” provide a disturbing backdrop against which the relationship between the title character (Mads Mikkelsen) and investigator Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) can grow ever more complicated. And the murderer being tracked in “The Bridge,” FX’s new drama created by Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid and premiering Wednesday, July 10 at 10pm, is a means of exploring the El Paso–Juárez area, paired cities straddling the border and encompassing a tangle of social and political issues involving the U.S.’s relationship with Mexico.
El Paso is a West Texas city of around 650,000 that’s home to a major Army base, while Ciudad Juárez is over twice that size and has in the last few years become notorious for its amount of gruesome cartel violence and for the hundreds of missing or murdered women, many of whom worked in the city’s maquiladoras, going back two decades.
As is the case with many border towns, the economies of Juárez can seem like a manifestation of the guilty conscience of the country it nestles up against — though the pharmacies and brothels have become overshadowed by drug-fueled organized crime and by manufacturing plants taking advantage of cheaper labor and laxer working regulations. It’s a darkly fascinating setting, and its one that “The Bridge” is set on taking full advantage of — which may be why its procedural aspects feel particularly stilted and stale. The series has so much to work with that whenever it settles back into being another serial killer story featuring another dedicated but socially inept detective, it’s deflatingly rote.
Demián Bichir (who got an Oscar nomination for “A Better Life”) and Diane Kruger (“Inglourious Basterds”) are the mismatched pair of cops who end up working together after a body is found placed directly on the border in the middle of one of the bridges connecting the two countries. Their dynamic, like the basic plot, is informed by the Scandinavian series on which “The Bridge” is based, one set around the border between Denmark and Sweden. Marco Ruiz (Bichir) is the Mexican detective, charming, married and trying to support his expanding family without taking bribes or doing side gigs for the cartels, who are closely involved with his police force. Sonya Cross (Kruger) works for the El Paso PD and is, as is a small screen trend in female investigator, official and otherwise (“The Killing,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Bones”), apparently on the autism spectrum. (A scene in which Sonya goes to a bar in the second episode strongly recalls a similar one with Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison in “Homeland.”)
At first the pair clash, but then they start to come around to one another, as the killer reveals an agenda that’s apparently politically driven, drawing attention to the divide between the two cities, to immigration issues, to the unsolved femicides. But there’s a theatricality to both the culprit and the way the two cops are written that doesn’t mesh well with the grittier locales and what’s actually happened in Juárez in recent years (the murder rate has finally, in the last few months, been in decline).
When, on first meeting Marco on the bridge, Sonya brusquely claims the case as an American one, he shrugs and says he has “nine heads in the parking lot at City Hall” and isn’t going to fight her for it. Given that that’s not a lurid exaggeration of the type of crime Juárez has seen, Marco’s later insistence on joining Sonya in her investigation and the focus on a killer who makes statements about “dialectics” as part of his motivation seems frivolous and false. Marco and Sonya are TV cops investigating a TV killer against a background that’s far more compelling in its reality than the stagey crime story that consumes the foreground, at least in the first three episodes shown to the press.
Kruger, with the more overtly complication role, just isn’t able to give enough solidity to Sonya — she’s a collection of carefully practiced tics, from the need to reminded to make eye contact to the constant wearing of earbuds. Bichir fares a bit better as the amusedly world-weary Marco, though his relationship with his younger wife (Catalina Sandino Moreno of “Maria Full of Grace”) and troubled teenage son is thrown off track by spontaneous act in one of these early episodes that seems born out of plot requirements rather than character.
Annabeth Gish plays Charlotte Millwright, the wife of a wealthy rancher whose story starts to intersect with that of the investigation, while Thomas M. Wright is Steven Linder, a mysterious loner who may be a suspect. Matthew Lillard is Daniel Frye, an alcoholic El Paso journalist who gets pulled into the story against his will, and who’s paired with cub reporter Adrianna Perez (Emily Rios, “Quinceañera”), whose family still lives in Juárez.
There’s enough of interest in “The Bridge” to make it worth hanging onto for a while despite a certainly heavyhandedness and the silly dramatics of its main storyline — mainly in its glancing details, from Marco’s responding to a butchered “buenos días” from one of Sonia’s coworkers with a dry “howdy, partner” to his attempt to explain why the case of a dead girl he signed off on a few years before was never really investigated. And the series is gorgeous to look at, particularly the pilot, directed by Gerardo Naranjo (“Miss Bala”), in which the lights of cigarettes, cars, the Franklin Mountain star and sirens glow in the night, illuminating the faces of officers and nightclub girls, onlookers and victims alike.