When a show opens with a sudden blackout and an order to seal the border, you know it's not going to have any problem being dramatic.
"The Bridge," which debuts tonight on FX, may even pile on more drama than it needs. The FX murder mystery feels tenaciously rooted in the real world, forcing us to confront our own feelings about immigration and American privilege even as our eyes pop at a truly compelling crime.
Based on the Scandanavian series "Bron" and brought to FX by showrunners Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid, "The Bridge" features Diane Kruger and Demián Birchir as cops from opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexican border – and the titular bridge – united by their efforts to solve a grisly killing.
Actually, two murders. The series begins with the discovery of a dead body at the exact point on the border where El Paso and Juarez countries meet. In one of the show's many smart twists, one crime quickly turns into two.
There's already enough story from the setup to fill out a series. But "The Bridge" keeps going, with a pilot that feels as crowded as the busiest border crossing. It can feel like a little too much, but after packing so much information into its premiere, the show will never have to be this congested again.
We're a little oversold, for example, on the oddness of Kruger's character, Det. Sonya Cross. Though the show doesn't tell us in the first episode about her Asperger's, it's fairly clear from the beginning that she's a little off. Her obsession with logic and proper procedure makes Mr. Spock's seem perfectly reasonable.
It's hard to believe anyone who's as cold as she is with the husband of a murder victim could be employed as a homicide detective anywhere. Fortunately, "The Bridge" has Ted Levine to make us believe. The "Silence of the Lambs" villain is convincing as a boss who has sheltered and nurtured Cross — and probably kept her on the job — despite her obvious flaws. The chance to see Buffalo Bill is reason enough to watch "The Bridge." He holds the show together even when Cross' questionable character threatens to derail it.
So does Birchir. As a cop in corrupt Juarez, he needs to accept a series of compromises to do his job — including letting countless murders go unsolved. But he's as soulful as Cross can be robotic, and he becomes our surrogate as we try to understand and empathize with her, despite her apparent lack of empathy for others.
This isn't so much a Spock vs. Kirk hot-and-cold dynamic as one between someone who needs rules to feel at peace and someone who needs to break them to survive. They face a killer who seems to delight in mocking protocol, making him a perfect foil for both. He claims to be committing murders in service of social commentary.
We learn about the killer's supposedly high-minded motives after a tense finale featuring an excellent Matthew Lillard as a sketchy reporter. But we don't need the race and class issues spelled out: They're painfully resonant.
Like FX's "The Americans," "The Bridge" asks us to explore our own prejudices and suspicions. But "The Bridge" doesn't give us the benefit of historical hindsight, like the '80s-set "Americans" does. The biases of these Americans are still going strong, and we don't yet have the benefit of history to recover from them. We're in darkness, and we seem stuck here.
"The Bridge" premieres tonight on FX at 10/9 c.