BARNHART

Briarpatch’s Long Strange Journey to Television

Series creator Andy Greenwald on the show's origins, oddball characters, and watching Jay R. Ferguson dance.
  • Rosario Dawson, still bearing scars from the explosion in last week’s episode of Briarpatch, returns for more. (Photo: Richard Foreman/USA Network)
    Rosario Dawson, still bearing scars from the explosion in last week’s episode of Briarpatch, returns for more. (Photo: Richard Foreman/USA Network)
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    In last week’s premiere of Briarpatch, the new USA series from first-time creator Andy Greenwald, viewers were treated to a rare sight — a badass female detective who’s got the angles covered and keeps her cool in the Texas heat. Rosario Dawson plays Allegra Dill, a feminine take on the male lead in Ross Thomas’ book of the same name.

    Much of the first hour was spent chipping away at the wildly convoluted narrative that will unspool over the next nine episodes. Allegra has returned to her wretched hometown to investigate not only her sister’s mysterious murder, but the role her old boyfriend Jake Spivey (Jay R. Ferguson) played in some shady arms deals that have caught the attention of her boss, a U.S. senator (Gerardo Celasco).

    So, as often happens in pilot episodes, Allegra spends a fair amount of time getting other people to spill storyline. She interviews cops, a local journalist, Jake, and her new lawyer A.D. (Edi Gathegi). All the while, episode director Ana Lily Amirpour slowly establishes Briarpatch’s surreal vibe, one part creepy, one part odd, with ultra-close-ups and zoo animals on the loose.

    “Hot noir” is how Greenwald described his creation last month at the TCA winter press tour, where I interviewed him about Briarpatch. “We wanted to make a classic story, but updated and switched up and spiced up and heated up for our contemporary era,” he said.

    Don’t forget weirded up. In tonight’s second episode (which USA has already posted to YouTube), Allegra is introduced to the absurdly cloying chief of police, Eve Raytek (Kim Dickens), dodges the unorthodox line of questioning from over-the-hill journalist Freddie Laffter (John Aylward), confronts Floyd, the world’s slowest stalker (Jon Beavers), gets hit on by a clueless blonde lady, fends off a chatterbox from high school, and more. And we haven’t even gotten to Alan Cumming, whose splendidly evil and deeply strange character debuts in next week’s episode.

    “It’s just a rogues’ gallery,” Greenwald told me. “I joke that if we could give this show a subtitle, it would be Rosario Dawson Talks To Weirdos. She’s so game for anything, so brilliant with so many different scene partners.”

    The highlight of tonight’s episode, titled "Snap, Crackle, Pop," is the closing montage, as Jake twirls around his vast, tropical-themed mansion snorting coke and pulsing to the beat of “High Pressure Days” by the ’80s band The Units, which Greenwald described as “a Synthpop band from San Francisco who never made it at all.”

    It is an absolutely fitting choice for Briarpatch, a show adapted from an ’80s novel by an author that time has forgotten — if it ever remembered him in the first place.

    “Ross Thomas is my favorite writer,” Greenwald told me. “I love every single one of his 25 books. And even when I read Briarpatch for the first time, I think 16 years ago, I thought it was ripe for adaptation. Of all his books Briarpatch was the most adaptable. It’s the most straightforward book. It’s a trope we all know — man in the wake of tragedy returns to this tough town and settles scores. And I knew that if I had a strong skeleton that people recognized, it would give me the opportunity to do all the other things I wanted to do.”

    Briarpatch creator Andy Greenwald at TCA winter press tour in California in January. (USA)

    Once producer Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) came on board and USA expressed interest, Greenwald thought he had it made. But wait! Turns out another studio, Paramount, had bought the rights to Briarpatch 30 years ago. Of course, Paramount was thinking movie rather than TV anthology, today’s trending genre. Either way, it threw a roadblock into the show’s development.

    Months went by as the two sides hashed out a rights deal, and that turned out to be a blessing for Greenwald, who did little else besides make podcasts and rewrite Briarpatch scripts.

    “I was able to spend a lot of time thinking about the show that I wanted to make,” he said. “Maybe this is due to my background in music journalism, but I really wanted to create the sound of the show.”

    Which brings us back to the beat that closes tonight’s second episode, directed by The Act producer Steven Piet. “High Pressure Days” isn’t a tune discovered by the show’s music director, Giancarlo Vulcano.

    “That song was in the script,” Greenwald says. “It’s a song I’ve loved for a long time. I’ve always felt it was very visual, very cinematic, and it just felt like something that Jake Spivey would play. I don't think Jake could name the artist or the song, but he loves it. Also, I love Jay Ferguson and I love him dancing — so that was really important to me as well.”

    Episode 2 of Briarpatch airs on USA tonight at 10:00 PM ET, with new episodes every Thursday through April.

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    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Briarpatch, USA, Alan Cumming, Andy Greenwald, Jay R. Ferguson, Rosario Dawson, Music and TV