FX's The Bridge looks, sounds and feels like another "Important with a capital I" show (think Breaking Bad, Homeland, The Americans), but like the best of this breed of cable shows, its entertainment value trumps whatever message it's trying to convey. The message is still there, of course — in this case, involving murder, corruption and cultural prejudices along the U.S./Mexican border — but the issues are wrapped up in an easily digestible format that relies on characters rather than lessons to draw viewers in.
Adapted from a Scandinavian series set along the border between Sweden and Denmark, the American version's premiere episode (airing Wednesday at 10/9c on FX) opens with a dead body found on the bridge between El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. It's only a mild spoiler to reveal that what appears to be one body is later discovered to be two halves put together. One is that of an anti-immigration judge from El Paso, and the other is of a Mexican teen — one of the 250 "missing girls of Juarez" who mysteriously disappear in crimes that are rarely investigated and hardly ever solved.
"The idea of setting it on the border was particularly interesting because it seemed like the Mexico/America border was so ripe for drama," executive producer Meredith Stiehm tells TVGuide.com of the location shift. "You see it in the headlines every day. There's massive crime and corruption and immigration's such a hotbed issue. ... And these stories, they're right there happening in our country and right across the border every day. So I hope that will translate into some drama about the people that are facing those issues."
Enter Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) and Marco Ruiz (Demian Bichir), two detectives from El Paso and Juarez, respectively, who immediately clash over who's responsible for the case. Complicating their working relationship further is the fact that Sonya suffers from Asperger's syndrome, which makes her hard-nosed and socially awkward, while Marco is charming and suave.
Though initially off-putting, Sonya becomes increasingly endearing as the show offers more glimpses into her personal life in later episodes. The show partnered with Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization that promotes autism awareness, to advise Kruger on her portrayal. She also has an on-set advisor, a young filmmaker named Alex Plank who suffers from Asperger's, who acts as a consultant on the show's portrayal of the syndrome.
"I try to go into it without fear of what people would think of Sonya and just trying to do her condition justice," Kruger says. "I just want her to be a real person, and I want to take away this myth that people who have Asperger's or autism have no empathy or that they don't have emotions. It's just they don't know exactly the right moment, as we all do, when to employ empathy or show emotion. And it can lead itself to very funny moments sometimes, but it's also heartbreaking. ... Sometimes people's reactions to Sonya in particular are very sad. And my heart breaks for her a little bit. I've become incredibly fond and very protective of her."
It was the character of Sonya that drew Kruger to the crime drama. "I've never in my career had a moment where I wanted to be a gun-toting cop," she says. "I saw the original show and was like, what is wrong with this person? But the mystery kept me watching, and then I was completely overwhelmed by how great this character was and so different and unique. [Actress Sofia Helin] was so fearless. ... She really inspired me to give it a shot as well here."
In another divergence from the Scandinavian version, FX's The Bridge features a more in-depth backstory for Sonya. Integral to that storyline is Lt. Hank Wade (Ted Levine) Sonya's superior at the police department, who also acts as a father figure and mentor.
"I felt like when I read this that I couldn't portray someone who has a condition like that without knowing where she came from," Kruger says. "I don't want [the Asperger's] to be an affectation and I don't want it to be comic relief. I want to feel everything I do in the show is motivated because of who Sonya is and where she is trying to go."
There will inevitably be comparisons between Sonya and Claire Danes' character Carrie on Homeland, who suffers from bipolar disorder. In Sonya's case, her Asperger's impedes her ability to sensitively approach victims' families, but her emotional detachment and ability to focus ultimately prove to be assets to her career.
"It just shows you their struggles, that they're not superheroes," says Stiehm, who also is a writer for Homeland. "Carrie is this wonderful CIA agent but she really struggles with this illness she has. And I think the same goes for Sonya. ... That to me sort of makes them more interesting and more layered to watch how they cope with it."
Adds Kruger of Sonya: "She lives for her job. ... At the end of the day, she's catering so much to her work and she gives it her all. But she doesn't really take care of herself."
Bichir's Marco, on the other hand, is an overworked detective who's trying to do his job in the face of massive governmental and departmental corruption south of the border.
"Marco's very much like you would imagine your Mexican cop to be," Kruger says. "He sort of flies a little bit under the radar. He's learned to work and to function in a very corrupt police [department] and city. Sonya, the only way she's learned to cope in our society is through rules. She's very much about enforcing those rules. So, Marco really annoys the sh-- out of her. She can't understand why he would not follow something, and is very rational or to the book. Obviously that makes for great scenes. And yes, it's a little bit symbolic of how different cultures and different countries go about things and what we can take away from that."
At the same time, both Stiehm and Kruger say the aim of the show is not to take a political stance.
"I don't think it's ever our job as writers to offer commentary," Stiehm says. "I think you start with a story. And in this particular story the serial killer is actually a political voice. The killer sort of has that agenda, but I think as writers, you want to tell good stories."
Adds Kruger: "We are trying very, very hard to not be preaching or to not take sides because I'm not sure that any of us have a solution to what is actually going on. But rather, [we're showing] a situation as is and then everybody can take away from it what they want to take away. Which doesn't mean we can't be entertaining."
To that end, the creative team also promises a quick resolution to the body on the bridge mystery, which will be solved within the first 10 episodes, according to Stiehm. The story will then shift to exploring the larger issue of the missing girls of Juarez. As the (anonymous) killer teases towards the end of the first episode, "This is only the beginning."
"It's not just one murder to solve," Stiehm stresses. "It's not one mystery. It's a vast, chronic situation over there. It's institutional."
The Bridge premieres Wednesday, July 10 at 10/9c on FX. Check out the trailer below: