USA’s adaptation of Briarpatch offers audiences everything they could possibly desire, a mosaic of prestige TV buzzwords and qualifying elements; quirky characters, surrealist setting, story twists, murderous mysteries, and the hint of a conspiracy hiding on the fringes of every scene. But the Rosario Dawson-starring story, created by former TV critic Andy Greenwald (and co-EP’ed by Mr. Robot scribe Sam Esmail), struggles to find any common ground between its many competing elements in its first three hours; for every intriguing character element or story beat, Briarpatch throws out a half-dozen attempts at style and substance that, at best, feel imitative of other, more coherent works of fiction.
If you were to feed every so-called “prestige” series to an AI, what it spits out on the other end would be a lot closer to Briarpatch than anyone’s probably willing to admit.
Taken purely on a superficial level, Briarpatch truly has it all: a commanding lead performance, a wildly talented crew of supporting performers (which includes Jay R. Ferguson, Kim Dickens, Alan Cumming, and Edi Gathegi), and a clear affinity for the rich history of hard-boiled detective noir. It’s all hard angles and deep colors on Briarpatch, matching those aesthetics with the kind of referential, vinyl-humping soundtrack giving everything a deeply cinematic feel (having directors Ana Lily Amirpour and Steven Piet on board certainly helps) – which, while it can be gorgeous to watch, quickly begins to feel like a hollow imitation as Briarpatch builds out its world of strange characters and hidden secrets.
The basic premise of Briarpatch is abundantly familiar: person who left their childhood home behind, returns after the death of a sibling to find things have changed a lot more than they seem. Dawson stars as Allegra “Pickle” Dill (checking off another item on the detective noir checklist), a congressional aide (I think?) who has the power to investigate people, punch senators in the face as foreplay, and jog the memory of every person in her hometown of San Bonifacio, Texas, she comes across. She’s the stranger returning to a familiar place, finding out through her sister’s shady death that things are not as they seem in town – which, of course, leads her to discover that there is definitely something afoot.
What that might be? Briarpatch doesn’t exactly play its cards close to its chest narratively; it either hides them from the audience completely, or tries to explain itself in the most awkward, obvious metaphors imaginable. Though seemingly a peaceful town, San Bonifacio is a hot mess: corruption is rampant, a serial bomber is on the loose, a gun runner is hunting down a local rich guy (Jay Ferguson’s Jake Spivey)… oh yeah, and someone let all the animals out of the local zoo, so Briarpatch can make clumsy metaphors with tigers and birds (the latter of which shits on the head of the laughable caricature of a mayor, because duh) while everything blows up, and everyone plays like it is just business at usual.
The confluence of these many, many elements makes Briarpatch feel like a tedious writing exercise; if you were to feed every so-called “prestige” series to an AI, what it spits out on the other end would be a lot closer to Briarpatch than anyone’s probably willing to admit. Like Esmail’s previous series, Briarpatch substitutes intrigue and style for depth and logic, but in a way that undercuts the slightly heightened sense of realism the show’s relying on. Quite frankly, not a lot of it makes sense: everything from Pickle’s character to the setting of San Bonifacio (is it rural? is it an urban area? who can tell???) is privy to the whims of the show’s wandering plot, and overwhelming lack of confidence in being able to tell one story with any sort of consistency.
Some might find umbrage with the idea that Briarpatch is a series without confidence; after all, it delivers its premise and builds out its world with reckless abandon, in a way a casual viewer might attribute to a mastery of the form. However, I’d argue the many, many different tones and ideas Briarpatch offers is a sign of the complete opposite: neither its small-town drama nor its large-scale story of government conspiracies and $50 million gun deals made by cartoonish criminals feel like the writers trust the material to be interesting enough on its own merits. Unfortunately, what it tries to use as methods of distraction simply feel like even emptier gestures to storytelling and character: Alan Cumming’s suits, Pickles’ sexual fetishes, and Jake Spivey’s opulence all feel over-delivered, and end up feeling as amorphously defined as the show’s main character herself.
The blueprint for Briarpatch is a great series, one employed by shows like True Detective, Hap and Leonard – and more recently, Stumptown, to greater effect. But those shows found their rhythms quickly, in ways Briarpatch struggles to define itself: it is neither funny enough, serious enough, or illuminating enough to establish itself as anything than an imitation of those aforementioned series (or even existing as a show that’s Fargo-adjacent). An elimination of some of the show’s more underwhelming elements, and a more coherent narrative voice, might help offer a more focused, engaging version of Briarpatch opportunity to blossom into something special; but the current mix of dour morality, empty “mysterious” imagery, and indecipherable characters make it one of 2020’s more frustratingly underwhelming debuts.