Two of the most important television shows of the summer will debut this week. So pay attention, because they're easy to miss in the flood of reality TV shows about people stuck in a house and naked folks trudging through the wilderness.
The first, FX's The Bridge, is an intimate, twisted look at life on the border using a horrific device: A body is found on the bridge leading from El Paso to Juárez, with half of 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 years ago.
One is a gritty drama, one is a gritty comedy. One airs weekly on a cable channel; the other will release all 13 hourlong episodes at once via online streaming.
Both take viewers to places American media rarely venture these days, busting up the traditional male-centered antihero formula of high-end TV shows 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 on Danish/Swedish TV, this show features a murder quickly tied to an infamous run of murders in Ciudad Juárez.
According to Amnesty International, more than 370 women have been murdered in that city since 1993, often working in the country's many foreign-owned manufacturing plants making products cheaply for export, known as maquiladoras. (Last year, there were 767 murders in Ciudad Juárez; there were 533 homicides the same year in Chicago, a city with nearly twice the population.)
On The Bridge, Mexican police are so overwhelmed 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 with Sonya Cross (German actress Diane Kruger), the supremely focused investigator for El Paso's Crimes Against Persons unit. But Cross also has Asperger's syndrome — though not spelled out explicitly in the first three episodes — working cases as a high-functioning autistic person who has trouble deciphering emotions and can't bear to be touched.
Ted Levine (Monk, Silence of the Lambs) also shines as a paternal superior in El Paso, Annabeth Gish (Brotherhood, Pretty Little Liars) is the widow of a rancher with a decidedly illegal sideline, and Lyle Lovett is an attorney aligned with the rancher.
They seem to face 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 that contribute to their comfort. 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. 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.
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 ladies 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, played by American Pie's Jason Biggs. 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.
Kohan also takes time to show the back stories of some other inmates, including a married, AfricanAmerican transsexual (and former firefighter) imprisoned after using stolen credit card numbers to finance his sex change operation.
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. 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, it's encouraging to see two new series with fresh takes on realism and social decay emerging from the wings.
Looks like my summertime TV schedule just filled up again. And I can't wait.
SEASON PREMIERE The Secret Life of the American Teenager, 8 p.m., ABC Family: Amy wants some "alone time" with Ricky, but his birth mother shows up and needs a place to stay.
All Together Now: A Celebration of Service, 8 p.m., NBC: Former Presidents Jimmy Carter, George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush get together for a special highlighting the importance of volunteering in your community. Because it's not like you're going to get paid for it in this economy.