"The Bridge" is a geographical location; the title refers to the span that connects the United States to Mexico in the El Paso-Juarez border region.
But the FX show, which returns in good form for its second season, also dwells in a psychological place, one that is effectively reflected in the show's parched aesthetics. The deserts, dry gullies and rocky terrain depicted in "The Bridge" reflects the emotional lives of the show's characters, who are often wary, burned out and low on resources.
But like many desert creatures, these people are wily survivors, and many of them possess more than their share of prickly courage. This is a drama about careworn, guarded people who are unwilling to give up and give in, even under forbidding circumstances. At times, the characters themselves aren't quite sure why they persist, but, whatever the reason, many of them are driven to explore the driest and darkest terrains of the head and the heart.
From the start, Demián Bichir has been one of the primary reasons to tune in to this drama, which pairs up his Mexican cop character, Marco Ruiz, with Diane Kruger's El Paso detective, Sonya Cross. Truth be told, I never quite felt Kruger had a consistent handle on her character in the first season; something about Cross, whose undiagnosed Aspergers leads her into social difficulties, felt strained and off. Much of the series revolves around the relationship between Marco and Sonya, but that developed in fits and starts in Season 1, and it was often obscured by elements that didn't exactly add much to the show.
"The Bridge's" first-season inconsistency stemmed from the fact that it couldn't quite decide if it was a character-based, geography-driven piece about the complex problems of the border region, or a more conventional crime narrative with a serial killer/mastermind pulling the cops' strings. The good news is, the storytelling is far more focused and coherent this year, and "The Bridge" appears to have ditched that sort of melodramatic story engine and leaned into its quiet but substantial strengths. As the world around Cross and Ruiz fills in and the portraits of other colorful characters fill out, the center relationship between the two detectives settles into a reasonably interesting place and Season 2 develops a loping, pleasing rhythm.
This year, "The Bridge" has several story threads to establish in the early going, but there's a sureness and purpose to the proceedings that was missing at times in Season 1. That said, "The Bridge" isn't a show I necessarily watch for its plot, though its many moving parts are handled efficiently in the three episodes I viewed. "The Bridge" is a show that you sink into: It's about an atmosphere, a mood, a sense of yearning and expectation. With quiet observations and effective restraint, it explores the mistrust that often exists between countries, bureaucrats, functionaries and people just trying to get by.
I don't mean to imply that "The Bridge" is entirely a mood piece; it moves along with purpose and energy, but it's often at its best when finding colorful details and or allowing small, telling moments to breathe. Now that it's ditched the clunkier elements of Season 1, it has more time and space to weave a distinctive tapestry and sense of place, and to introduce effective new characters like the one played by Franka Potenta, who is mesmerizing in all of her scenes.
"The Bridge" is never going to be the show that indulges in the kind of extreme moments that the current TV landscape seems addicted to; it's more mournful than showy, more moody than outrageous. But its modest ambitions are nothing to sneeze at; in fact, this refurbished, expansive version of the show recalls one of the better seasons of "Justified," another solid FX show with a terrific sense of place. This year, "The Bridge" feels lived in and idiosyncratic; the word "organic" springs to mind, though you won't find the down-and-out Marco Ruiz eating kale any time soon.
By the by, one of the best things about Season 2 is that Matthew Lillard and Emily Rios are now series regulars. Their mismatched reporter characters always jolt "The Bridge" with a necessary dose of energy whenever they're on the screen. I'm almost more interested in those two than in the central Marco-Sonya relationship, but fortunately, "The Bridge" offers many intriguing possibilities and relationships as it heads into its assured and atmospheric second season.
"The Bridge" airs 10 p.m. ET Wednesdays on FX.
Ryan McGee and I discuss "The Bridge," "The Strain," "Penny Dreadful," "Extant," "Married," "You're the Worst" and "Masters of Sex" on this week's Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.