The Bridge debuts tonight on CBS at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Just under a month ago, I wrote about Rookie Blue, a Canadian cop procedural that was brought to our shores by ABC as an attempt to toss a blandly generic cop show on the air when there aren't a lot of new blandly generic cop shows. Rookie Blue has been about the only scripted series ratings success this summer (albeit, a modest one and one that is helped immeasurably by its lead-in of summer hit Wipeout), so perhaps blandly generic Canadian cop shows are the next big thing. If that's the case, then The Bridge is screwed. Because this is a show that shows evidence of a personality every so often. Elements of it feel overdone, but a lot of it is pretty fresh and gritty and interesting. More importantly, it talks about being a cop in a pretty uniquely Canadian way. It's on CBS, so it's screwed.
I don't want to oversell The Bridge. It's a weak summer for scripted programming so far, so it's entirely possible this is standing out simply because it's taking some chances with its storytelling. It definitely helps that Aaron Douglas is at the show's center. Douglas, who's probably best known as Chief Tyrol from Battlestar Galactica, is an appealing presence to stick in the middle of a show like this. He's able to play the side of central character Frank that everybody likes. He's able to play the side that's a pain in the ass to his bosses. And he's able to play the side that's really worried about how his father is getting older and trying to learn everything he can from his dad before he passes on. There's not a lot here that Douglas isn't able to play as well as the vast majority of his American cop show counterparts, though there are a few stabs at romance that mostly fall flat.
But the real reason to tune in for The Bridge and the real reason that it's probably doomed is because it's attempting to tell something of a serialized storyline. Now, the show's on CBS, so that means the network will likely have no patience for it (to say nothing of how it stuck the show on Saturdays), but the serialized story is actually kind of interesting, helped by the fact that it does seem to have a uniquely Canadian perspective. The bulk of the storyline is about labor unions, a topic that has mostly disappeared from U.S. TV, roughly as the importance of unions in our political sphere has corroded over the years (though our politicians never tire of raising the specter of them as a reason for Everything Being Awful). There are the usual cop show affectations - a lengthy plot about a guy who's running over homeless people with his pickup is just not very good at all and takes up a surprising amount of time in the two episodes I've screened - but a lot of this is about the work-a-day cops realizing they're getting a bum deal and rallying behind Frank to get a better one.
The one thing I don't like about this storyline is that The Bridge is afraid to go all the way with it. The major thing that's causing consternation against the cops is a growing fear that cops of The Bridge are simply being too brutal toward suspects. But the show goes out of its way to show us that these suspicions are unfounded and driven by a corrupt internal affairs department that hopes to ride those fears to a better standing within the department as a whole (and possibly promotions for its key personnel). When a video of a brutal beating leaks in the first episode, of COURSE the cops were doing it because they were provoked. There's not really any attempt at subtlety here, and that hurts the show. Everybody's a good guy or a bad guy, never both.
But the show is capable of such bravura sequences when it wants to be that it makes the predictable and generic stuff that much more disappointing in retrospect. The scenes between Frank and his dad are well-written, and a scene where a clandestine squad sweeps the house of a suspect cop, planting bugs and searching for evidence (as opera plays on the soundtrack) is nicely shot and edited. The performances, for the most part, are good as well, and the series does a good job of showing the moments when the cops do something bad, realize that things have gone from bad to worse, and then feel sickened by it. (In particular, there's a car chase in the second episode that ends in a jolting and horrifying way, though the show does too little to follow up on it.)
At the same time, the more CBS-y stuff is often embarrassing. The soundtrack fills with obnoxious pseudo-rock music. The cop procedural stuff is either so overplotted that it becomes nonsensical or so underplotted that it feels like a million other shows of this type. The truly interesting stuff - basically, the serialized plot about the union stuff - very often gets overwhelmed by these elements, and it's never clear why, exactly, Frank is still trying to run down this guy running over homeless people and understand why it's happening when he's stuck in a situation where he's pretty sure that just about everyone in the department is against him and he has to root out the real traitors. It feels pointless and kind of abrupt.
But the show takes some appealingly dark turns in these first two episodes, turns that push Frank away from the good cop he wants to be and toward a more murky place. But then it backs away from it as quickly as it approaches those positions. Frank's a good guy, remember? And so are all of his closest friends and confidants. And the bad guys? Oh, they're SO BAD, so that means that whatever Frank does to them is justified, right? Except when he GOES TOO FAR. This whole show feels like someone in Canada saw The Shield and wanted to do the Canadian version of that, then had a long series of periodic failures of nerve.
If I sound ambivalent about this show, I am. There's stuff in it that's really, really good. There's stuff in it that feels like it dropped in out of a '70s cop show (and not a good one). On a Saturday night in the summer on CBS, though? It's not a bad way to kill an hour, and that ultimately ends with me giving it a mild recommendation. There is going to be stuff in this show that will make you grit your teeth in disgust (oh, another, the actress playing Frank's love interest is pretty bad), but it's worth it in the end for its solid performances, its generally fine serialized storytelling, and the way it illuminates something closer to Canadian cop culture than a simple suggestion that all cops are alike everywhere. If Rookie Blue was simply too generic, The Bridge may ultimately suffer from being a different kind of generic. But it's a kind of generic I enjoy more, and the lead actor is good. That'll have to be enough for now.