By Kenny Herzog
Special to MSN TV
It's quite a time for female leads on dramatic series. Mireille Enos is TV's most inscrutable protagonist as guarded-but-relentless detective Sarah Linden on "The Killing." Then there was Gillian Anderson's trip across the pond as brilliant, man-eating Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson on BBC's "The Fall." And over at the big broadcast networks, Kerry Washington has had tongues wagging with her portrayal of fast-talking D.C. "fixer" Olivia Pope on "Scandal," while Julianna Margulies reigns as prime time's self-possessed diva supreme five seasons into her inspiring turn as a woman scorned and transformed on "The Good Wife."
On FX's newest grim drama, "The Bridge" (premiering July 10 at 10 p.m. ET/PT), Diane Kruger — most recognizable as Quentin Tarantino's insurgent heroine in "Inglourious Basterds" — plays El Paso PD murder cop Sonya Cross, who shares a bit of DNA with all four aforementioned characters. But in particular, she evokes DCI Gibson's unconventionality and Detective Linden's tortured soul. Sonya is frustrating at first, even stock. When we meet her in the pilot, she arrives at a murder scene on the El Paso-Mexico border in a jacket stitched with horse designs — her answer to Linden's autumn sweaters — her long blond hair fittingly tied back in a ponytail. She's listening to her iPhone, but it's unclear whether she's pulling a Willem Dafoe in "The Boondock Saints" and whistling while she works or perhaps obeying some kind of ritual instruction before surveying the scene.
As we come to know Sonya over the first few episodes, we understand she's a creature of habit and disciple of procedure, to an almost unhealthy degree. Her strict abidance of department regulations is almost RoboCop-worthy, particularly in the opening moments when she stops a harried American woman (Annabeth Gish) from rushing her cardiac-arrested husband across the crime scene to a decent hospital. Back at the precinct and in the widening glimpses we're allowed of her life apart from work (she doesn't sleep much), Sonya is similarly clueless as to what makes anyone tick outside of rote behavior. It's almost "Dexter"-like, except in Sonya's case, she's far from a serial killer. Sonya suffers from Asperger's syndrome, and her particular symptoms are ideally suited for meticulous casework but ill-equipped for human bonding.
Her story is a sad one, no doubt. We also learn of a prematurely deceased sister whose truck she inherited and who we assume was a mentor, and infer rather quickly that her boss, Lt. Hank Wade (Ted Levine, aka Buffalo Bill of "Silence of the Lambs" infamy), gets her in ways that not even Debra Morgan understood half-brother Dexter. Hank frequently offers her a repetitive series of gentle shoulder nudges to soothe her anxiety. It's a touching gesture, the kind — aptly enough — a stable owner might offer to his more sensitive creatures. But Hank is retiring soon, just as the manure lands right on Sonya's desk. That crime scene she entered, the one that launches an investigation into someone knocking off both illegal border crossers and high-profile opponents of immigration reform. This initial corpse, or at least half of her, belongs to an American judge whose cause de célèbre was preventing Mexicans from entering our country. It lay on the U.S. side of the border, attached to the lower body of a dead Juarez prostitute placed strategically on the Mexican side. Grim stuff.
This also complicates matters for by-the-book Sonya, who has to share the case with gruff Chihuahua State policeman Marco Ruiz (Demian Bichir of "Weeds" notoriety). The interplay between he and Sonya off the bat is what you'd expect: His candor and flexibility with rules makes her crazy, and her literal, rigid interpretation of law and order grows instantly tiresome. It's unclear whether there'll ever be a romantic spark between the two, but it sure helps that each of them is good-looking and, as we discover over these first few hours of "The Bridge," slavishly devoted to their own smothering routines. Marco's wife, Alma (Catalina Sandino Moreno, all grown up from her Oscar-nominated role in "Maria Full of Grace"), certainly seems uneasy that her husband's unlikely partner is so fair and pretty.
The gringa whom Alma should really have her eye on is Charlotte Millwright (a still-foxy Gish), the wealthy wife in distress looking to save her husband on that bridge. Hubby doesn't make it, but it turns out his trips to Juarez were about more than checking out the horses (there is certainly an unexpected equestrian flare to this show). He also built an underground tunnel beneath their luxurious ranch home that trafficked border crossers. It's a shady business that he tried to protect her from by requesting divorce on his deathbed. But too late: Charlotte's already getting creepy visits from Lyle Lovett (is there any other kind?) as an attorney slinging bribes and threats, not to mention some lady who resembles late "Cocaine Godmother" Griselda Blanco and dispatches somebody to go all "Godfather" on Charlotte's favorite steed. Like Sonya, Charlotte feels the walls of support beginning to crumble, and only Marco seems willing to help. Uh-oh.
The casting here is a total mishmash. It's great to see "Breaking Bad" regular Emily Rios as junior El Paso Times reporter Adriana Mendez. But in the show's most dubious personnel move, former "Scream" teen wisecracker Matthew Lillard plays Adriana's elder colleague, Daniel Frye. Daniel is a sub-Robert Downey Jr. in "Zodiac" stereotype of the drunken, jaded journalist, complete with natty facial hair and bookworm specs. Like Downey's character in "Zodiac," Frye is toyed with as an intermediary for the killer's message. Mendez becomes his begrudged guide through the slums of Juarez, while he's Adriana's tippler ambassador to hard-hitting journalism — the kind he brags of having learned, no kidding, as a New York Post contributor.
There are all manner of bit players in "The Bridge," including "Top of the Lake" alumnus Steven Linder as Thomas Wright, an emaciated Wolverine doppelganger and sketchy figure who may be helping women from Juarez get into Texas, or possibly killing them and burning their remains. And like most aspiring "prestige" cable originals, "The Bridge" will live and die by its emphasis on characters. Yes, there's allegory aplenty about the invisible fences between people and the very real obstacles to coexistence. And a quarter of the way into Season 1, there's more than enough steamy melodrama (particularly one questionable interpersonal development) to either cheapen or heighten your experience. But it all comes down to characters, and it's difficult to project whether an admittedly exhausting Sonya will reveal the rawness that cements her symptoms, or if Lillard can dig down and show us that Daniel — and he — are more than what they seem. That may not be reason enough to stick with "The Bridge," but on the most basic level of entertainment value, seeing this hastily assembled binational task force find the sicko slaying innocents while filtering his motives is a road worth traveling.
"The Bridge" premieres Wednesday, July 10, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.