One of the most impressive things about FX’s adaptation of Fargo was how successful it was at capturing the spirit of a Coen brothers production while never feeling like an imitation of the real thing. Many have tried and failed to reproduce the alchemical mix of pathos, humor, and slice-of-life absurdism (not to mention world-class writing and directing) that drove that genre exercise, and the results are rarely more than adequate. While Andy Greenwald’s Briarpatch manages to be more successful than many at selling its particular version of noir-inflected comedic pulp, it gets in a little over its head by trying to cram too much plot and wackiness—hell, too much everything—into its sun-drenched Texan setting. It’s the kind of show where, if too many minutes go by without something quirky happening, an escaped zoo animal will suddenly appear onscreen. A series meant to be a breezy treat shouldn’t seem like it’s straining so hard.
If anything, Briarpatch feels a bit like a throwback to USA’s Blue Skies days, a series that traffics in the kind of crime dramedy on which the cable channel made its bones, although this one is wedded to a complicated season-long plot rather than a more episodic narrative structure. It combines the easy pleasures of cornball small-town life, replete with odd supporting characters and their respective running gags, with the darker fare the channel has embraced in recent years: harsh violence, themes of nihilism and moral concessions, and aspirations of artistic superiority. If the latter elements often feel unearned, it’s not for lack of trying: Ana Lily Amirpour directs the pilot with all the strange zest and visual flair she brings to her big-screen projects like The Bad Batch and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. But along with that stylistic enhancement comes the attendant emotional distance; we don’t really get to know our main character until almost halfway through the series, a tough ask for a weekly show that only has so much time to make its case.
That main character is Allegra Dill (Rosario Dawson), a D.C. fixer for an up-and-coming U.S. Senator, and a woman comfortable occupying the gray area between right and wrong to get things done for her bosses. Dill returns to her long-abandoned hometown of St. Boniface, Texas, after her estranged sister Felicity, a local cop, is killed by a car bomb outside the ramshackle apartment building she also owned. Vowing not to leave again until she figures out who killed her sister and why, Allegra quickly meets a parade of idiosyncratic locals, many of whom she knew in her younger days, and nearly all of whom are hiding secrets of some kind. (Briarpatch never met a backstory or character arc it couldn’t twist into something more convoluted than necessary.) There’s the lawyer who drew up the sister’s will not three weeks prior (Edi Gathegi); Felicity’s fellow-cop boyfriend (Brian Geraghty) who happens to be inconveniently married; Floyd (Jon Beavers), Felicity’s no-class tenant that is far too interested in Allegra’s actions; the shady police chief (Kim Dickens); and more, all of whom end up connected in some way or another to the mystery.
The show gets its juiciest drama out of the playfully antagonistic relationship between Allegra and Jake Spivey (Mad Men’s Jay R. Ferguson), a childhood friend who joined the army and ended up making millions in the arms trade under less-than-legitimate circumstances. When Allegra’s boss instructs her to strike an immunity deal with Jake so he’ll testify against an old gun-running partner under Senate investigation, it’s only a matter of time before the overlap between her professional obligations and her personal manhunt for her sister’s killer starts to appear. Ferguson makes Jake a multilayered menace: garrulous buffoon on the outside, tossing around money and margaritas on a lavish estate (he’s very proud of his pet giraffes), with a wily military mind and elite soldier’s training buried just below the surface. The exchanges between Jake and Allegra crackle with chemistry, the two delivering a hot-and-cold dynamic that helps overcome some of the more meandering sprawl of the plot—and the overlong time it takes for the show to start digging into Allegra herself.
The icy distance at which the show holds Allegra in its early going makes it difficult to lock into the material. She’s more a collection of writerly tics than a fully dimensional person (she takes long drags from cigarettes without ever lighting one), so as each new facet of her personality comes to light, there’s no baseline identity on which to affix our understanding. By the time Briarpatch finally invests in her history and motivation, we’re already neck-deep in double crosses and conspiracies involving immigration, local town-hall politicking, and the ongoing murder mystery that slowly consumes everyone and everything. With each new player or fleeting cameo—hi, Peter Stormare as a bowling-alley owner!—the show takes off in too many directions, struggling to do justice to each of these scenes and situations. (Best of the bunch: Alan Cumming guest stars in several episodes as a key player in the machinations, and looks like he’s having more fun camping it up than every other person combined.)
Part of the difficulty is that Briarpatch wants to be a deeper show than it is. There are several moments of eerie, almost supernatural portentousness that slot in awkwardly alongside the affable Southern-fried dramedy. And the show continually tries to drop in quirky symbolism and load meaning onto clunkily staged imagery that comes across more forced than fanciful or effective. It ends up being several shows in one—gumshoe mystery, political intrigue potboiler, and small-town soap. Each one has its pleasures, but sit together uneasily, like the series couldn’t bear to not be all things to all people.
Still, when it calms down and manages to settle in to a single story for sufficient lengths of time, Briarpatch is alive with wit and style. The fourth episode revolves around Felicity’s funeral, and the chance to dig into the consequences of her death on everyone in St. Boniface makes for a sharp installment, complete with a needle drop that would do Quentin Tarantino proud. Similarly, an episode-long invasion of Spivey’s compound that kicks off the show’s back half is gripping stuff, culminating in a reveal of the overarching plot that almost justifies some of the narrative knots into which earlier episodes tied themselves. This series has a lot of promise, but it’s running too hot out of the gate, refusing to sacrifice breadth of ambition for focus. Briarpatch has a wonderful cast and some inspired ideas; if it can slow down and figure out a more elegant way to deliver its fusion of icy cool and ramshackle quirk, St. Boniface will become a wry and appealing place for viewers to put down some roots.