One of the first scenes in “Coyote,” the new CBS All Access series about an American border patrol officer who’s forced to work for a Mexican cartel, shows Michael Chiklis taking a shit. Stood up for a meeting, the gruff, tough-talking, body-armored agent flees to the nearest public restroom, and — having threatened to buy a moving box and “take a shit in that instead” if the U-Haul desk agent doesn’t make an exception to his customers only restroom policy — Bailey “Ben” Clemens stares at his outstretched foot in contemplative respite. A brown water spot gurgles on the floor. The busted stall door hangs from its hinges. Ben exhales in disgust.
But Ben’s frustration isn’t with the state of the bathroom he’s chosen. It’s with what that bubbling water indicates: a secret tunnel, leading under the building and out past the border wall next door. Soon, Ben is busting heads of would-be sex traders and saving a woman from a tragedy.
Most of “Coyote” plays out like this scene, for better and for worse. While there’s usually more going on than what immediately meets the eye, the six-episode first season doesn’t always follow through on its more thoughtful intuitions and is often hard to watch — not just because there’s a number of scenes where Chiklis vomits, wheezes, or witnesses stomach-churning carnage — but because the story of one man’s continued descent into a dark criminal underbelly is generally not a fun journey.
“Fun” is not a requisite, of course. Plenty of intense dramas over the years have offered ample suspense and insight in order to keep viewers hooked on a character’s perilous fall from grace, and “Coyote” certainly has the appropriate sheen in its early episodes. Director and executive producer Michelle MacLaren — who’s helmed a number of the aforementioned dramas over the years, including “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” — introduces the story with plenty of wide frames, showing off the real-world locations and building an informative environment with her lush shots of the Mexican coastline to inland restaurants and the busy border crossing itself.
It’s when we zoom in that things get a bit more dicey. The story is rather simple: Ben, in a reluctant act of heroism, tries to help Maria Elean (Emy Mena), a pregnant teenager, escape her cartel captors, and instead puts himself and his family at risk. That he’d never been confronted with a similar moral choice in his 32 years of service seems somewhat implausible, but it’s a TV show, so just go with it. What’s harder to get past is his lack of development.
Ben is the card-carrying stereotype of old, grumpy, white dads. He still pines for an ex-wife who’s already remarried. He hates her new husband (the always affable Mark Feuerstein, playing another super-nice step-dad after his recent stint on “The Baby-Sitters’ Club”). He turns down wine in favor of beer (which is almost always a Budweiser), barely hides his disdain for his daughter’s tattoos, and has never met a joke too hurtful for his bros at the office. (At one point, a “friend” jokes that Ben misses him, and Ben says, “More than your wife,” knowing the two are in counseling.)
If his struggles to save Maria Elena and his family actually pushed Ben to think about his job and his beliefs differently, perhaps the series would carry more weight. Instead, “Coyote” is too opaque in its motivations. After that initial scene in the bathroom, it’s never clear if Ben went to that specific U-Haul station on purpose, looking for an illicit smuggling operation, or if he just got lucky. The implication may not seem important, but it speaks to the series’ murky moral lessons: If Ben just got lucky, that indicates these kind of tunnels and illicit activities are so plentiful, you literally can’t use the bathroom without sitting down next to one. If he went there on purpose, we’d at least have more of an attachment to the character.
“Coyote” purports to be about walking a mile in another man’s shoes, but after six hours, it’s still unclear if Ben’s dangerous trek has altered who he is or how he thinks. Showrunner David Graziano and co-creators Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert are reluctant to paint Ben in such a negative light that he’s on a mission of redemption, but they also fail to show how this experience has affected him at all (you know, other than the constant stress). The later episodes, which pivot to include the cartel members’ perspectives, are similarly truncated; each character’s humanity is clear, but their motivations are too neat and tidy.
That could be a matter of circumstance, considering the show was given a 10-episode order but was cut off after six due to the pandemic. Perhaps the last four episodes would answer a lot of lingering questions about Ben’s moral character as well as his cartel bosses. There are certainly enough unfulfilled flashbacks to make you think follow-ups were planned, but unable to be included.
But unlike “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul,” or even “Ozark,” this isn’t a world anyone should be eager to revisit. Too many bad men do too many bad things, and their patterns are predictable enough to be frustrating — for TV fans who want to be surprised, and for anyone sick of spending so much time with platitude-spouting antiheroes. “Coyote” may find its way to more substance if it’s allowed to prowl a bit longer, but like Ben’s bowel movements, you’re just as likely to be relieved that it’s over.
“Coyote” Season 1 is streaming in full on CBS All Access.