Briarpatch wants to be the next Fargo, but it’s another case of style over substance for this would-be anthology crime drama. Rosario Dawson is suitably engrossing in the lead role, but despite some invigorating editing choices and a deliciously creepy supporting performance from Alan Cumming, Briarpatch lacks the oomph – that special something – to push it over the line and create something truly memorable.
The ten-part season, based on Ross Thomas’ 1984 novel of the same name, first screened early in the US last year on USA Network and just finished airing in the UK this week on Alibi.
This place is death.
In emulating the Fargo style, Briarpatch captures the eccentricity and vengeful impulses of the citizens of small-town Texas, which perpetually swelters in one-hundred-degree heat. D.C.-based private investigator Allegra “Pick” Dill (Dawson) returns to her hometown of San Bonifacio after her sister Felicity (Michele Weaver), a cop ten years Allegra’s junior, is murdered in a car bombing. She’s intent on solving the too-close-to-home case but becomes quickly embroiled in conspiracy and lies – not to mention forced to address deep set childhood trauma, reconsider her obligation to her employers, and cope with the grief from the loss of a sister.
Something Briarpatch does have going for it is a strong sense of place, with San Bonifacio’s hot and dusty locale, Southern charm and surrounding desert expanse. The show doesn’t quite descend into stereotype such that tumbleweeds roll across screen or a saloon shootout causes a ruckus, but the rural-American influences are strong. There’s also a peculiar, offbeat vibe to proceedings (escaped zoo animals stroll willy-nilly down the street, everyone seems to drink the same fake brand of beer) and nuggets of dark humour (cops way overdo the shooting of a suspect, a man wielding a rocket launcher is blown literally out of his boots).
Allegra embodies the droll investigator archetype. She’s got a sharp tongue and a sauntering walk, smokes to ease stress mid-investigation and boasts a heavy drinking habit (straight from the bottle). She once spent time behind bars for blackmail, and now finds herself in a bind working for the people who got her out, but not being able to leave their employ without their permission or she’ll be sent back to prison. Topping it all off is a healthy dollop of deep-seated trauma: despite the heat she either walks or gets someone else to drive her everywhere, a consequence of her parents dying in a car crash years previously.
As Allegra begins her investigation, she meets an array of quirky San Bonifacio residents (each with a quirky name), key among them being: Allegra’s lawyer sidekick A.D. Singe (Edi Gathegi); hedonistic rogue Jake Spivey (Jay R Ferguson) who got rich off Syrian arms deals; the forever smiling Chief of Police Eve Raytek (Kim Dickens) who launches a campaign to become city mayor; Felicity’s would-be husband and fellow cop Captain Gene Colder (Brian Geraghty); Colder’s distressed ex-wife Lucretia (Christine Woods), taking her recent divorce hard; Felicity’s clingy jock ex-boyfriend Floyd Ferness (Jon Beavers) who becomes suspect number one for her murder; border patrol officer Lalo Levantes (David Zaldivar), helping Mexican immigrants across the border; Spivey’s old military superior Clyde Brattle (a deliciously slimy and scenery-chewing Alan Cumming), intent on ruining Spivey’s life and eliminating Allegra in the process; and numerous other drawling, potty-mouthed locals. There’s a lot to keep up with, but don’t get too attached to anyone; Briarpatch has a penchant for abrupt character deaths, playing into the outré vibe.
Rotten Tomatoes describes the series as “never less than watchable”, which seems like the minimum you could ask of a show in this neo-golden era of quality television. Nonetheless, it’s an appropriate summation of where Briarpatch sits on the watchability scale. You likely won’t be raving about the season to friends and family after bingeing the ten episodes, but likewise you probably won’t turn it off halfway through for being sub-par. The easy-going pace takes some getting used to across the first few episodes, but things pick up when Allegra’s investigation kicks in halfway through the season. It’s worth sticking around for the lively framing and camera pans on the pilot episode, Allegra’s rapport with Singe, and the performances from Dawson and Cumming.
Briarpatch isn’t a bad show. It’s actually quite decent. Fargo enthusiasts and avid followers of crime television will be well placed to enjoy this would-be anthology series, but other shows have done the murder-mystery better, and despite displaying promise, this one doesn’t quite do enough to justify a second season – hence its cancellation. Briarpatch has potential but squanders the chance to become the next big crime hit.