The best way to describe USA's new drama Briarpatch is that it's not quite enough, and never really what you want it to be. The 10-episode series has the sturdy bones of a pulpy crime thriller but aspires to also be something more surreal, and the result is a murder mystery that, while projecting a definite sense of place, leaves its viewers wanting in one area or another.
Adapted from the Ross Thomas novel of the same name by former Grantland writer and TV critic Andy Greenwald (Legion), Briarpatch is executive-produced by Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) and stars Rosario Dawson as Allegra Dill, a steely, no-nonsense investigator who works for a rising senator (Enrique Murciano) and who returns to her South Texas hometown when her only sister, Felicity (Michele Weaver), a bright, young detective, is killed by a car bomb.
There are early hints that Felicity, who was involved with a fellow detective (Brian Geraghty), might not have been as clean as she appeared on the surface, as she purchased an apartment building with funds she didn't appear to have gained legally. But as Allegra digs into her sister's untimely death with the assistance of Felicity's friend and lawyer, Edi Gathegi's A.D. Singe, she discovers that her sister might have been murdered because she was investigating a web of corruption in San Bonifacio, and Allegra soon becomes determined to wipe it out herself.
Dawson's measured performance grounds the more bizarre aspects of the bright and sunny but clearly Twin Peaks-influenced series, but it also reveals the show's shortcomings too. Nothing seems to phase Allegra as she arrives to investigate her sister's murder, not even the escaped zoo animals roaming the streets of San Bonifacio. And while this may simply be a mask that Allegra has adopted as a form of self-preservation — there are hints that she's not as devoid of emotion as she initially appears — Allegra is not the picture of a grieving, heartbroken sibling desperate to bring her sister's killer to justice either. As such, her cool, unaffected demeanor creates a sense of disconnect between character and story. Does she actually care about solving her sister's murder, or does she simply feel like it's her responsibility?
Although Allegra knows enough about Felicity to recognize that the absence of tarragon in the cupboards means the apartment that supposedly belonged to her isn't where she lived, the writers make repeated references to the fact the two women were not particularly close. In fact, many people don't even know Felicity had a sister, something that speaks to a deeper issue in which the series can't seem to decide if San Bonifacio is a small, eccentric border town or a mid-sized city driven mad by the heat, as Allegra frequently runs into people from her childhood during her investigation yet plenty more have no idea who she is.
And while Allegra's ruthless, take-no-prisoners attitude makes her a formidable opponent for the many people who mean to stand in her way, it also has the unintentional side effect of making Allegra and her expertly tailored pantsuits the least interesting part of the story. She regularly cedes ground to the weirder, louder, and more outlandish residents of San Bonifacio, including Felicity's lively and peculiar tenants, Cindy (Allegra Edwards), a woman who covers herself in pudding for creeps on the internet, and her skeezy boyfriend, Harold (Timm Sharp), who might know more than he lets on. But they ultimately have nothing on Jay R. Ferguson's scenery-chewing Jake Spivey. An old childhood friend of Allegra's, he takes up all the space in any room and appears to have stolen Matthew McConaughey's car. He also may have made his fortune running weapons for an international arms dealer (Alan Cumming) wanted by Allegra's boss, a B-plot that runs through the entire series but never feels as important as it should.
And that's the main issue with Briarpatch: The foundation for a compelling, hard-boiled noir is in place, but the narrative never quite rises to the occasion to bring it to fruition. The series, which beautifully captures Albuquerque's panoramic vistas and crisp blue sky, features clever direction early on but loses some of that vision over time as episodic directors aren't able to recapture what Ana Lily Amirpour does in the pilot. It also never leans fully into its pulpy nature the way you wish it would, only making it about 75 percent of the way and thus leaving viewers unfulfilled.
Meanwhile, the attempt to create a distinct sense of place sometimes overtakes the narrative rather than adds to it. By prioritizing style over substance, the momentum of the story slows, making it difficult for viewers to become invested in anything in particular, least of all solving Felicity's murder or ridding San Bonifacio of corruption. There was a lot of potential for Briarpatch, and the series is definitely watchable, but by never fully committing to one thing, it ends up with several interesting ideas rotating around one another rather than coming together to tell a fully realized story.
TV Guide Rating: 3/5
Briarpatch premieres Thursday, Feb. 6 at 10/9c on USA.