Written by Ben Murchison
Briarpatch begins with a bang, albeit an expected one if you have read the synopsis. The latest offering from the USA Network centers around investigator Allegra Dill (Rosario Dawson, Jane the Virgin) returning to the small Texas border town she grew up in to investigate her sister’s death. Slowly, pieces of the puzzle start to come together as clues are unveiled and events are explained that are previously only hinted at. The hopeful anthology series is full of eccentric characters that match the oddities of the circumstances driving the plot itself.
Adapted from a Ross Thomas novel for the screen by former music and television critic Andy Greenwald, Briarpatch prides itself on being stylish, but it isn’t to cover for a lack of substance, just to enhance it. It’s often dimly lit, but isn’t afraid to go for it with over the top visuals. It features live giraffes in one of its more impressive sequences from its pilot episode, and carries an unrelated subplot around escaped animals from a zoo that adds another layer of inherent danger and quirk. The feel that the show generates is a product of its cinematographer Zack Galler (The Act), teaming with director Ana Lily Amirpour (The Bad Batch) to deliver an aesthetic that is still fresh and entertaining, but also may feel familiar to fans of the series Goliath.
While there are no obvious connections to pair the two series, the similarities of Briarpatch and strong Goliath’s third season are unmistakable. They both feature absurd ensemble characters and whimsical elements that make you question what is real and what is being imagined. They also both include little tie-ins to help convey the small-town vibe, such as repeated callbacks to a BBQ sign, Lupe’s tamales, and a particular brand of beer. It seemed like a slight departure when Goliath did it, but Briarpatch has toed the line perfectly through its first two episodes. The use of shadows, fisheye effects, extreme closeups, and clever transitions demand your attention even if the story takes its time to unfold.
Dawson absolutely owns this turn as Allegra. From her character’s first appearance you see that she is in control of the situation, of her vices, of everything. She is far from subtle, and it’s fun to see Dawson play someone so direct, and watch her work from ahead, calling anyone out that is less than truthful. The closing of the pilot episode really allows her to take a turn though, and open up an added depth to her role moving forward.
If there is a gripe to have about the show early on, it’s just a small one regarding seemingly unnecessary kinky sex fetish element they added to the relationship Allegra has with the Senator (Enrique Murciano) for which she works. It seems to be against brand for her character, and just exist for a little shock value, but it may ultimately have some sort of payoff outside of being a retread of Bill Pullman’s character in The Sinner. There are also a lot of subplots and characters being introduced early, so you have to hope that the show is able to successfully wrap things up and do them all justice in its 10 episode runtime.
Of those characters, Dawson isn’t the only one that is exciting to watch, with Brian Geraghty (The Alienist) and Edi Gathegi (The Last Thing He Wanted) among others also having their moments. However, it is Jay R. Ferguson (Mad Men) that rivals her power on screen as Jake Spivey, her childhood friend that’s followed a questionable path to become the wealthiest man in town. Spivey is unapologetically brash, but somehow charming at the same time. He exemplifies the best examples of clever and unexpected dialogue that the show delivers. Their past, and what he became involved with afterwards is a story that runs parallel to her investigation, at least for now.
If the incredible plot advancing montage at the close of the second episode is any indication of how good things can get before this story ends, Briarpatch is going to gain a lot of steam and a lot of fans before Allegra is done reminiscing.