At first glance, FX's new drama The Bridge seems like a tough sell: a brusque female lead on the autism spectrum, yet another serial killer wreaking havoc and a setting in which nearly half the dialogue has to be in Spanish with English subtitles.
But what makes for a tough sell could also make for great TV. The Bridge, based on the Swedish-Danish series Bron, swaps the stark icescape of Scandinavia for the bone-dry desert of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, bringing Texas homicide detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) and her Mexican counterpart, Marco Ruiz (Demian Bichir), together after a body dumped on a bridge between the cities turns out to be the latest victim of a border-crossing serial killer.
What follows is less a manhunt than an exploration into what executive producer Elwood Reid calls "the weird voodoo of that border culture." The case, which will continue through most — but not all — of the season, is merely a means to throw together the two detectives.
Sonya and Marco clash initially. Her worldview doesn't allow for much moral wiggle room, while he has spent his entire career navigating the quagmire of Mexico's corrupt police force. "Sonya's not an easy character to reach," says fellow exec producer Meredith Stiehm, who has extensive experience writing off-putting female leads on Homeland and Cold Case. Stiehm tends to bring a three-dimensional approach to her characters, as does Kruger. "I have a lot of emotional scenes," says Kruger. "We're dealing with all the dark downfalls of society that Sonya just can't process." She's an ace detective, but only her department chief-surrogate dad Hank (Ted Levine) can truly connect with her — and Hank is almost ready to retire.
In comes Marco. Stiehm says the goal is for Sonya to open up to Marco as the season progresses, and that Marco's inherent "cuddliness" will be one of the factors that draw her out.
Stiehm and Reid wrote the pilot script with Bichir (an Oscar nominee for 2011's A Better Life) in mind: "Demian has that warmth about him," Stiehm says. Reid recalls, "There was no plan B." To their delight, Bichir, whose only other long-term TV credit was his stint as the mayor of Tijuana on Weeds, readily accepted the role. Bichir says the reason for his decision was simple: "They said, 'Your costar will be Diane Kruger.'"
The German actress hadn't thought of American TV as a viable career trajectory until the advent of cable's post-Sopranos golden age piqued her interest. "All of a sudden, you have filmmakers I would die to make a feature with doing cable," she says.
Bichir's Mexican background was crucial to Stiehm and Reid. Unlike on most shows with Hispanic characters, Marco and his Mexican brethren actually speak Spanish. A lot. And not just Spanish — that peculiar brand of border-speak that crops up in cities like Juárez. Bichir has become the show's language cop on set, making sure the translations aren't just accurate but authentic as well.
That sometimes means adapting dialogue on a character-by-character basis. "Everything changes," Bichir says. "It's a whole different story if you're a first-generation Mexican-American or if you're crossing the border or if you went to school and have a degree." Characters also occasionally slip into Spanglish or begin a conversation in one language and finish in another.
Kruger, who costarred in Quentin Tarantino's German-, French- and English-language film Inglourious Basterds, isn't worried about viewers being turned off by The Bridge's subtitles. She remembers that the studio behind Basterds was concerned about its copious captions, but the fears were unfounded: In addition to earning Tarantino an Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay, the movie made $120 million domestically. "Audiences really embraced it," Kruger says.
Before Bichir got involved, the show was supposed to be set on the Detroit-Windsor, Ontario, border, but Reid and Stiehm insisted on El Paso-Juárez. They had an ally in the location switch: FX Networks CEO John Landgraf. "We'd been trying for years to set a show at the U.S.-Mexico border," Landgraf says. "When this came along, we were stunned because not only was it a good story anywhere you set it, but it became an even better, more specific story when you set it there."
A more arid atmosphere isn't the only element that separates Bridge from Bron, whose plot will continue to unfold when its second season airs overseas. "Every episode, we get further from the original," Stiehm says. And while shooting in the Great White North would have provided a visual link to the original, "What are you doing in Seasons 2 and 3? No offense — it's just that Canada and the United States are very similar," Reid says. "What, there's a debate on national health care?" We'll take murder cases over insurance claims any day of the week.
The Bridge premieres Wednesday at 10/9c on FX.