Briarpatch, the offbeat noir anthology that launches this week on USA Network, has a lot of things going for it, but let’s start with badass Rosario Dawson. In a season that’s already given us Stumptown’s Dex Parios and Watchmen’s Sister Night, it’s still kind of amazing to watch Dawson fill up the screen as Allegra Dill, with her stone-cold looks and stone-colder pantsuits, trying to solve a murder while dodging enough creepy men to fill a #metoo memoir.
Andy Greenwald, known to many as the cohost of The Ringer’s “The Watch” podcast, created Briarpatch out of a 1980s pulp fiction novel and a menagerie of influences he carries around in his TV-addled brain. His enthusiasm for great and campy television alike wears me out whenever I hear his podcast, but on Briarpatch that protean mind is put to surprisingly good use (surprising because of the novelty of a critic turning creative — most TV critics I know would rather die than sit in a writers’ room having their ideas shot down).
Maybe the best idea Greenwald had was taking Benjamin Dill, the hero of Ross Thomas’s long-forgotten 1984 detective novel Briarpatch, and turning him into Allegra. She’s a political operative in D.C. who’s called back to her dumpy hometown of St. Bonifacio, Texas, aka “Saint Disgrace,” after her sister Felicity is killed by a car bomb. (Car bombs were once a thing in America.)
As Daniel Fienberg noted in his review, Allegra doesn’t seem that broken up about Felicity’s death. I disagree with Fienberg’s inference, though, that her lack of empathy makes it similarly hard for a viewer to get invested in Briarpatch. There is no shortage of on-ramps to this show, particularly if the aforementioned viewer likes over-the-top dialogue, killer soundtracks, luau-themed parties, endless walk-ons of bizarro characters, zoo animals popping up in random scenes, and — as I may have mentioned — Rosario Dawson in a leading role.
Greenwald says that his TV sensibility is informed by, among other things, Twin Peaks, Top of the Lake, and Mike Schur comedies. I can see all that in Briarpatch, and maybe some Fargo and Elmore Leonard, too. And as Joe Reid has noted, Greenwald and his co-executive producer, Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail, clearly love the great TV character actors, because the show is full of them.
There’s Jay R. Ferguson, who seems to be everywhere since cashing out big as Stan in Mad Men. Here he plays Jake Spivey, Allegra’s old high school flame who lives in a Southwest-style Shangri-La, built on a gun-trafficking business that Allegra’s boss, a U.S. senator, wants shut down. Despite getting to rock some of the finest leisure wear of the ’90s and a boatload of shady-dude dialogue, Jake is actually runner-up for interesting masculine foil on Briarpatch Season 1.
That honor goes to Alan Cumming, who shows up in Episode 3 as an arms dealer who really, really hates Jake and takes an intense interest in Allegra’s investigation. It’s Cumming’s enviable task to eat up three minutes at a time delivering soliloquies like this one to some teenage punks in a diner:
“Youth is nature’s purest and most fleeting resource. It burns brighter than magnesium. Of course, youth doesn’t make you unique. What makes you special is what you don’t have. Care to guess what that is? What you don’t have, my bedwetting little friend, is a single thing to lose! That’s! What makes you interesting. That’s! What makes you special.” Mr. Rogers couldn’t have said it any better, except Mr. Rogers probably wouldn’t have been brandishing a loaded gun while delivering these words of inspiration.
Also in this solid cast is Kim Dickens as the two-timing chief of police, Edi Gathegi as Allegra’s trusted lawyer — trust being a relative thing on this show — and Brian Geraghty as a cop that Felicity was seeing at the time of her death, despite his being married to someone else. I will add two names to Joe’s list: Ed Asner as the Ed Asner-like owner of the local newspaper, and David Paymer as his long-suffering son.
As I noted, this is an anthology, which is the quintessential Peak TV show because it requires relatively little viewer investment — 10 episodes and done. Briarpatch is convoluted enough that the show is constantly stopping to overexplain things, which is good for easily confused viewers like me, but encourages episode skipping. What I’m saying is, if you just wanted to cut to Episode 3, I won’t tell anyone.
Briarpatch premieres Thursday, Feb. 6 at 10 PM ET on USA Network, with new episodes airing each Thursday through April 9.
People are talking about Briarpatch in our forums. Join the conversation.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.