July 05--Another somber new series joins the typically frothy summer schedule this week, as "The Bridge" debuts on FX. Like "The Killing," this is an American adaptation of a Scandinavian original, and its mood is similarly grim. Many of the elements are reminiscent of prior shows -- there's an ongoing storyline about a serial killer, for example, that increasingly unavoidable component in crime series.
The female lead, a homicide detective played by Diane Kruger ("Inglorious Basterds"), is another in the growing line of prickly, hard-to-handle female characters. Like Mireille Enos' Detective Sarah Linden in "The Killing," Kruger's Sonya Cross is obsessively focused on her work. And, just as Claire Danes' Carrie Mathison struggles with her bipolar disorder in "Homeland," Sonya Cross must contend with her Asperger's syndrome.
If "The Bridge" doesn't have the out-of-nowhere impact of its fellow FX freshman series, the '80s-set, Soviet-spies-in-suburbia breakout "The Americans," it has its own timely fascination and fertile setting.
Though taken from the Swedish/Danish original series, the case at the core of "The Bridge" could hardly be more symbolic. On the bridge connecting El Paso, Texas, to Juarez, Mexico, the body of a woman -- a judge with anti-immigration views -- is discovered. But only the top half of the corpse is the judge; the bottom half is a girl who has been murdered in the lawless area around Juarez, where killings are horrifyingly commonplace.
The case brings together Cross, who is single-minded about finding the truth, and Marco Ruiz (Demian Bichir, the Oscar nominee from "A Better Life"), of the Chihuahua State Police. If Cross is rigid, Ruiz is ingeniously fluid, by necessity. He's learned where the lines get blurry, from working with colleagues susceptible to corruption and a habit of turning blind eyes to drug cartel crimes, prostitution and murder.
With the subject of immigration dominating the national conversation, the border setting of "The Bridge" raises issues that feel immediate and important. The challenge for executive producers Meredith Stiehm ("Homeland") and Elwood Reid and the creative team is to make the most of the tensions inherent in the cross-cultural investigation by Cross and Ruiz.
The cast is an asset, especially Bichir, who's magnetic and subtle and who brings authenticity to every syllable he utters, in English and Spanish (subtitles translate most of the Spanish dialogue.) Kruger is also capable, along with Annabeth Gish as a widow whose late husband had secrets she never suspected, Ted Levine as Cross' sympathetic boss, Matthew Lillard as a bitter journalist and Catalina Sandino Moreno as Ruiz's wife. "The Bridge" premieres at 10 p.m. Wednesday on FX.
SPEAKING OF SERIAL KILLERS: Last week's debut of the eighth and final season of Showtime's "Dexter" was the highest-rated season premiere in the show's history. Obviously, millions of viewers are hooked on the show, but I admit I've never gotten into it, for a number of reasons. When it started, I didn't have Showtime, and after it had run for a while, I knew catching up would require viewing homework. Much as I admire Michael C. Hall's talent, the truth is that part of why I've dragged my feet about delving into "Dexter" was a reluctance to spend even more time watching a show about a serial killer.
Recently, I wrote about suffering from serial-killer overload, a condition exacerbated by "Hannibal," "The Following" and by recent real-life tragedies. And "The Bridge" features another serial-killer storyline.
But there's a difference between including a serial-killer plot element and fetishizing the acts of the killers themselves. For me, "Hannibal" and "The Following" are troubling because the killers are treated as larger-than-life figures, gleaming with evil brilliance.
That's a far cry from how "The Killing," for example, is handling its serial-killer storyline so far this season. On "The Killing," the main concern remains the victims of the crimes, not lingering close-ups of screaming women and bloody blows.
Similarly, though the Oregon-set "Bates Motel" is a prequel to "Psycho," so far young Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) is a confused, rather pathetic figure. We're hardly meant to thrill to his dark intentions.
I'd argue that no subject should inherently be off-limits. It's the job of artists to make us see dimensions of the world -- and of ourselves --in all manner of subjects and characters. The recent death of James Gandolfini, who made mobster/killer Tony Soprano a multifaceted, monstrous, tragic character on "The Sopranos," is proof that even the most repellent man can be made dramatically compelling. And we can go all the way back to Shakespeare's "Richard III" to see a character who is horrifying and fascinating at the same time.
What I object to are shows (and network executives who sign off on them) that seem to exist primarily to wallow in one-dimensional violence, gore, terrified innocents, and endless windbaggy speeches by killers who fancy themselves philosophers. In that regard, I dread the second season of "The Following." And if there's more to "Dexter" than the ongoing killing narrative, I apologize. But I'll need more convincing before I go there.
RADIO NEWS: More changes are coming to the Oregon Public Broadcasting radio schedule. This week, OPB announced that a new local weekly show focusing on arts and culture in the Northwest is joining the schedule this fall. The show will be produced and hosted by April Baer, a familiar voice to OPB radio listeners.
Baer, who has been with OPB since 2004, won the job following a national search. The show is described as a magazine-style approach, covering visual arts, theater, music, literature, culture and more. A year in the planning, the show -- which at press time didn't have a name -- will feature local and national stories and information about Oregon and Northwest events.
WHAT TO WATCH THIS WEEK:
"Secrets of Althorp -- The Spencers": Missing the splendid interiors of "Downton Abbey"? Here's a way to wander through the home of 19 generations of the Spencers, the family that gave the world the late Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales. Charles Spencer, otherwise known as the ninth Earl Spencer, leads a tour of the stately home and shares some of the stories connected with the mansion and its inhabitants. (8 p.m.Sunday, PBS/10)
"Carson on TCM": Conan O'Brien introduces vintage clips of Johnny Carson "Tonight Show" interviews with guests including a 1976 appearance by Doris Day and a 1979 talk with Steve Martin. (5 p.m. Monday, Turner Classic Movies)
"Get Out Alive With Bear Grylls": Debut of a new series featuring adventurous Bear Grylls as host, and teams of contestants trying to show their survival stuff in New Zealand. (9 p.m. Monday, NBC/8)
"Lewis & Clark: Journey of the Corps of Discovery": Of particular interest to Oregonians, this is a rebroadcast of Ken Burns' two-part account of the historic 1804-06 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition. (8 p.m. Tuesday, PBS/10)
"Camp": Debut of a new comedy-drama starring Rachel Griffiths ("Six Feet Under") as the owner and director of Little Otter Family Camp, contending with financial challenges, a rival camp and some not-so-happy campers. (10 p.m. Wednesday, NBC/8)
"Hollywood Game Night": Another new summertime show, this is from "Grimm" executive producers Todd Milliner and Sean Hayes (who has his own new NBC series coming up this fall), and features celebs (and non-celebs) teaming up to demonstrate their showbizzy savvy. Jane Lynch ("Glee") hosts. (10 p.m. NBC Thursday, NBC/8)
-- Kristi Turnquist
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