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Apocalypse and Patriarchy in USA Network’s Archaeological Thriller ‘Dig’

Apocalypse and Patriarchy in USA Network's Archaeological Thriller 'Dig'

“Dig” premieres on USA tonight at 10 PM, and I’ll preface my thoughts on its first episode by saying A) only one was made available to me, and I know it takes a few for a show to find its footing, and B) it’s been a long winter, and I’m not in a “giving the benefit of the doubt” mood.

Those caveats given, I have a few bones to pick with this vaguely supernatural and religious thriller based in Jerusalem. And it’s not because of any of those aspects; I was raised on “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” so the fact that they actually used the phrase “they’re digging in the wrong place” within the show’s first half-hour warmed my heart immensely.

But that was then (1981, to be exact), and this is now, and what rankled me was the portrayal of women in “Dig,” which comes from the executive producers of “Homeland” and “Heroes.”

I was drawn to it because of the presence of Lauren Ambrose and, to a lesser extent, Anne Heche and a mysterious third actress (Alison Sudol, it turns out), whose bright-red bob evoked Milla Jovovich in “The Fifth Element.” Could she be a similar type?Disappointingly, both Ambrose and Heche seem thus far to be relegated to clichéd roles. Heche is Lynn, the put-together bureau chief who’s sleeping with hot, damaged detective Peter (Jason Isaacs), but not in a cool, Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson on “The Fall”) way. Instead, she has to say lines like, “As your boss or your occasional sex buddy, we don’t have to be close. I get it, those things are easy, they don’t require anything. But the fact is I am your friend, and that requires a little bit more. Especially since I’m the only one you’ve got.” Oy.

Ambrose, who was so brilliant in “Six Feet Under” and has never quite gotten another role to equal it, is Debbie, a member of a cult-like, bunker-based religion in New Mexico. She’s tasked with looking after a 13-year-old boy who’s been groomed all his life for… something. When she pleads with the group’s leader, played by David Constabile (guys, it’s Gale from “Breaking Bad!”), to give the kid more time to be a kid, he dismisses her concerns and tells her it’s her job to make sure he’s a well-adjusted child (despite the fact that he’s apparently never met his parents or any other kids). And when he goes missing after she lets him have a glimpse of the outdoors, all hell breaks loose (not literally — yet), and mostly we see her either wringing her hands worriedly or openly sobbing.

More problematic is the third woman, whose nameless character is glimpsed by Isaacs’ detective first when he’s chasing a suspect through a marketplace, then again wandering the streets of Jerusalem at night. He’s weirdly drawn to her sexy red bob, which reminds him of… someone. (His daughter, I think, which makes what happens next all the ickier.)

Her body you may recognize, because it’s the poster art for the show. “Dig” is literally written on this young woman’s naked back, along with a bleeding hieroglyph that’s been carved into the back of her neck, and I bet it won’t shock you to learn that something bad happens to her later in the episode – after her manic pixie dream archaeologist sheds her clothes and goes skinny-dipping with him in the middle of a sacred dig site near the Temple Mount. (I’m not going to make a Mount pun, but I could.)

Surrounding these female characters are: a group of Jewish men planning to bring a storied red calf from the frozen wilds of Norway to Jerusalem and murder its owner in the process; another man who’s stolen a sacred artifact in Jerusalem and escapes from the police via his violent male accomplices; and two men (one from the New Mexico compound, and one from the Jewish red calf faction) planning to somehow orchestrate the beginning of “the prophecy,” which sounds an awful lot like the Bible’s end of days. “We are small men, we mean nothing,” says the theft suspect to the police, in the kind of gender-singular language that, to my amazement, is still the norm.

So, basically, just another day in the history of organized religion’s relationship to women, right? I stand more than ready to be corrected; maybe Anne Heche’s character will turn out to be more at the center of this show than she seems. Maybe the “Fifth Element” girl will have some higher significance that counteracts all the ritualistic, patriarchal baloney I’ve seen so far. Maybe Lauren Ambrose busts out of the compound and goes on an awesome road trip. THAT I would dig.

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