FX's The Bridge and Netflix's Orange is the New Black may be the most important new TV series of the summer
Two of the most important television shows of the summer will debut this week. So pay attention: because it’s easy to miss the significance in the flood of reality TV shows about people stuck in households together and naked folks trudging through the wilderness for survival.
The first, FX’s The Bridge, debuts at 10 p.m. Wednesday as an intimate, twisted look at life on the border using a horrific device: A dead body is found on the bridge leading from El Paso to Juarez, with half a woman lying in Texas and half in Mexico, the waistline positioned on the border.
The second series, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, tells the story of hapless Piper Chapman, a typically high-strung, middle-class graduate of Smith College who gets sentenced to 15 months in prison for transporting money given to her by a drug dealing lesbian lover 10 years earlier.
One is a gritty drama, one is a gritty comedy. One airs an episode at a time in
weekly intervals on a cable channel; the other will release all 13 hourlong episodes at once via an online streaming service.
But both take viewers to places American media rarely venture these days, busting up the traditional male-centered antihero formula of today’s high-end TV in the process.
“We have lots of bodies and lots of parts and bones and skulls,” laments Demian Bichir’s Marco Ruiz, the beleaguered detective for the Chihuahua State Police who gets sucked into investigating a murder calculated to draw attention from both U.S. and Mexican authorities.
Loosely based on a series of the same name which was a Danish/Swedish TV project, this show features a murder quickly tied into a phenomenon known as “femicide” – defined as the specific killing of women because they are female – in Ciudad Juarez.
According to Amnesty International, more than 370 women were murdered in that city from 1993 to 2005; many of them sharing the same physical attributes -- slender with dark hair -- and often working in the country’s many manufacturing sweatshops, known as maquiladoras. (last year, there were 767 murders in Cuidad Juarez; there were 533 homicides the same year in Chicago, a city with nearly twice the population)
On The Bridge, the body is connected to a corpse Ruiz found in a house with 22 other bodies – all others, men killed by the drug cartels and dumped in an abandoned structure known as a “death house.” In the show, Mexican police are so overwhelemed and cowed by the cartels – Ruiz laments they demand of police “you take our silver or you take our lead” – that even the parents of murdered girls are not interviewed by police.
Ruiz is forced to team up with Sonya Cross (German actress Diane Kruger), the supremely-focused investigator for El Paso’s Crimes Against Persons unit. Cross also has Asperger’s syndrome – though that doesn’t seem to be spelled out in the first three episodes – working cases as a high-functioning autistic person who has trouble deciphering emotions, is a stickler for rules and can’t bear to be touched.
The show offers a nice selection of character actors backing up their pair, including Ted Levine (Monk, Silence of the Lambs) as a paternal superior in El Paso who helps Cross navigate her blind spots; Annabeth Gish (Brotherhood, Pretty Little Liars) as the widow of a rancher with a decidedly illegal sideline and Lyle Lovett as an attorney aligned with the rancher.
They seem to be facing a serial killer with a conscience, calibrating his crimes to force officials on both sides of the border to face brutal realities they’d rather avoid. For Americans, it’s the hypocrisy of punishing undocumented workers while ignoring conditions across the border; for Mexicans, it’s the tolerance of lawless brutalities inflicted by the cartels and psychopaths following in their path like so many flies.
As a critic, I loved seeing a Mexican policeman’s life rendered so realistically and compellingly; and Cross is a female antihero hobbled mostly by her lack of empathy (why are female antiheroes, like Homeland’s Carrie Mathison or Nurse Jackie’s Jackie Peyton, so often struggling with psychological illnesses such as bipolar disorder or addiction?)
By contrast Orange is the New Black mines dark comedy from a situation most middle class quality TV nerds would find horrifying: a 15-month stretch in prison with mostly poor, mostly dysfunctional women.
Developed by Weeds creator Jenji Kohan, Orange recreates the story of a middle-class woman gone bad, mining much of its comedy from the absurdity of seeing a Starbucks-drinking urbanite forced into a world populated by working class women with a talent for making the worst choices at the wrong times.
“I’m wearing granny panties and I’ve only spoken to white people,” sobs Chapman (Taylor Schilling) over the phone to her fiancee. Earlier she had insisted “you can’t show any weakness; that’s what all the books say.”
Yes, she studied for a trip to prison.
American Pie’s Jason Biggs is her fiancée, who compared finding out about her drug money muling past to “being in a Bourne movie,” complaining about a lack of sex by the third episode. That 70s Show’s Laura Prepon is the drug running ex-lesbian lover, who makes a surprising reappearance early in the series.
And Star Trek: Voyager’s Kate Mulgrew is nearly unrecognizable as Galina “Red” Reznikov, a tough Russian shopkeeper who winds up leading the prison kitchen (when Chapman makes the mistake of insulting the cuisine, she gets a particularly unsavory hygiene product placed inside an English muffin, courtesy of Reznikov).
Kohan also takes time to show the backstories of some other inmates, detailing the struggle of a Latina whose mother is also in the prison and a married, African American transsexual imprisoned after using stolen credit card numbers to finance his sex change operation.
In some ways, these stories are more compelling than Chapman’s journey – if only because we’ve seen her character’s notes played before in Weeds. But her tale offers a window into other stories American TV rarely explores; I’ve only seen the first three episodes so far, but it’s a welcome departure into a new universe we haven’t seen rendered realistically since HBO’s Oz.
You can nitpick both series. It’s hard to believe a middle class white woman with no prior record would get so much jail time for carrying money years ago. And it’s equally hard to believe a woman who struggles to read people’s emotions would be very effective in solving what is often the most extreme crime of passion: a murder.
But as longtime dramas such as Dexter and Breaking Bad play out their final seasons this summer, its encouraging to see two new series with fresh takes on realism and social decay emerging from the wings.
Looks like my summertime schedule just got a little bit more crowded. And I can’t wait.
The Bridge debuts at 10 tonight on FX. Orange is the New Black debuts all 13 episodes at 12:01 a.m. Pacific time Thursday on Netflix. Click here for the NSFW trailer for Orange is the New Black.