Briarpatch Offers Pulpy Small-Town Darkness, and Not Much Else

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Briarpatch. USA. Thursday, February 6, 10 p.m.

Small-town America would be a far more titillating place to live if Hollywood was in charge of it. From the dancing-dwarf infested Twin Peaks, Washington, to the Amish-Mafia and/or Satanic-cult controlled Banshee, Pennsylvania, to the were-tiger plagued Midnight, Texas, television whistle-stops are way bloodier and sexier and creepier than anything you’re likely to blunder into while actually driving a blue highway.

San Bonifacio, Texas, the alas-fictional setting of USA’s new pulp-crime drama Briarpatch, is no exception. Sun-scorched and stone-broke, every other store front on Main Street empty, yet home to a gigantic CIA-linked international arms-trafficking operation (with a side helping of terrorism, please) operation, it’s a place where a cop’s daily activities include wrestling alligators, shooting kangaroos, and getting blown to pieces by a serial car-bomber. “An established hive of criminal what-the-fuckery,” is how the police chief describes it.

In short, it’s a good place to get out of as quickly as possible, as congressional investigator Allegra Dill (Rosario Dawson, Jane The Virgin) did the minute she graduated from high school. Now, two decades later, she’s been drawn back to clean up loose ends left by the death of her estranged cop sister in one of those car-bombings. It’s quickly apparent that the murder is way beyond the capabilities of the local police.

Felicity, Allega’s murdered sister, somehow owned a $400,000 apartment complex on a police sergeant’s salary. Though the two sisters hadn’t spoken in years, Felicity made Allegra the sole beneficiary of $1.7 million life insurance policy she took on herself just a couple of weeks before she was killed. And she was engaged to another cop who was still married.

Then there’s the matter of that CIA gun-running scheme. Coincidence No. 1: It’s directed by an old boyfriend of Allegra, a guy named John Jacob Spivey (Jay Ferguson, Twin Peaks), who oozes malefic charm and AK-47-toting bodyguards. Coincidence No. 2: The congressional committee Allegra works for has just launched an investigation of Spivey, which the oily committee chairman hopes to ride all the way to the presidency. Coincidence No.3: The gun-running Spivey seems awfully interested in having the murder investigation end. “Don’t be the poor hopeless fucker trying to find out who killed her,” he urges Allegra.

Learning all this, Allegra naturally decides to stick around town. Mischief ensues.

All these suspects and plot twists make Briarpatch sound like a whodunit, a modernist version of an Agatha Christie novel. But it more closely resembles a pulp crime novel, particularly in its dark, dank characterizations. The characters are all hard-drinking (the local cop reporter, surveying a table littered with empties after a night bending elbows with Allegra, declares that “if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a controlled drinker”), hard-boinking (Allegra’s attachment to handcuffs is not strictly law-enforcement-oriented), and equipped with hearts that runneth over with cynicism. The police chief (Kim Dickens, Fear the Walking Dead) seems seriously grief-stricken over the death of Felicity—then proves it by framing an innocent man. If the depth of San Bonafacio’s corruption isn’t obvious enough for you, the recurring motif of ants scavenging through garbage should get the point across.

Yet if Briarpatch‘s mysteries are interesting, its characters magnetic, and its flashes of surrealism amusing (all those exotic animals doing battle with the police, usually in the background of a frame, were sprung from the town zoo by animal-rights activists), the show never quite rises to the level of emotional engagement. There’s nobody to love or even like much in Briarpatch. Even Allegra is flat and withdrawn; her insistence on staying to pursue the case is driven by intellect rather than emotion. (Though her disconcerting habit of puffing on unlit cigarettes hints at repressed rage that may yet bubble forth).

The 1984 novel by Ross Thomas upon which the show is based was written during America’s post-Vietnam funk, when cynical tales of CIA misanthropy still had the capacity to shock.  The drumbeat of scandal has sapped some of their energy. As Thomas himself observed in his novel, “The rain was steady and unrelenting and, like all steady and unrelenting things, boring.” That’s much too strong a word for Briarpatch. But so is “compelling.”

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