On the new FX crime drama The Bridge, co-exec producer Elwood Reid takes a novelistic approach to the story of two very different detectives brought together by a murder on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
(September 13, 2013)
From the very start of its pilot, the new critically acclaimed FX crime drama The Bridge does what a lot of great TV shows do – it feels like a world that was there before you started watching. Based on a same-titled Scandinavian series, its plot both teeters and draws momentum from the edge of the U.S.-Mexican border. Socially abrupt El Paso detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger, Inglorious Basterds) and charming, wary veteran Mexican homicide investigator Marco Ruiz (Oscar-nominated Demián Bichir, A Better Life) are brought together when a body – or really two halves of different bodies, an American Judge and a young Mexican woman – are found on the border bridge. A good set up, but you quickly realize there is much more unexpected mystery within the detectives themselves.
The series, which will be wrapping up its first season on October 2, was developed for American audiences by Meredith Stiehm (Homeland, Cold Case) and Elwood Reid, a novelist turned TV writer whose credits include Cold Case and Hawaii 5-0. Reid spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the intricacies of writing an unlikeable character for cable, why his love of novelistic narrative drew him to television, and how shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad represent a golden era in TV that no one saw coming.
I know this is based on a Danish/Swedish TV series. You've taken things to a very different border, but how much of the original Scandinavian show in terms of tone and vibe remains for you guys?
The plot engine, the skeleton of the plot that the original had, we kind of follow. I'd say we took the best 75 percent. The tone and the mood, the sort of Scandinavian noir, it's a very cold, icy and moody. They're kind of reselling our '50s and '60s noir back to us with a little bit different climate and landscape. But when you reset it on the border of two radically different cultures, it just changes the tone and the feeling of the show.
It heats it up, for lack of a better word, and it also ups the stakes. The stakes in the Scandinavian version were just sort of whatever the stakes the writers decided to set up, but there are real stakes between our two countries. When you set a body between the border of these two countries that have a fractious relationship at best, that automatically changes the tone of everything. It politicizes things in a way that the Swedish version was straining to do at times.
Photo: © 2013 FX Network
Demian Bichir and Diane Kruger in The Bridge.
It becomes pretty explosive when you…
Yeah, that's the thing, everyone reads in the newspapers. A lot of people [say], “Oh, that's happening in some other country.” But it's right in our backyard, you know? When you see all that violence down there, it's just a little, tiny trickle of a river separates it. That's a huge difference.
This series does have a definite noir aspect. There's this enigmatic almost otherworldly quality to this weird limbo between the two borders. It's sparsely populated, the dialogue is very spare. What for you is this show about?
Well, in some ways it can be almost described as a stage play or a novel. You have two characters from different countries that meet over a body at a border and the body itself contains a mystery. The body isn't what it seems… One half of the body is a 16-year-old prostitute from Juárez, the other is an anti-immigration judge from Texas. Just like the body isn't what it seems, both characters aren't what they seem. We learn Sonya's character suffers from Asperger’s and has a hard time engaging with the world, and Marco's secret is far darker and sort of gets at the heart of the series. A lot of what the killer is doing can be traced back to some sins in Marco's past. So it's these two things – the body contains a mystery and our two characters contain a mystery.
It's also essentially about these two countries… I did a lot of reading about the Mexico-U.S. relationship. For all our proximity and our influence on each other, we don't really know each other – there's great miscommunication around these two countries. You really feel it when you’re there. I was down in Mexico City for the opening of this show, and there is a very us-versus-them attitude with a lot of the Spanish-speaking press toward America. They like to blame us for everything and vice versa. That was fascinating to me. I was down in Juárez trying to understand it, and it was a really odd place to try to get your head around. I met this activist, a very interesting guy, and he said, "Describe the relationship with the United States and Mexico as a parasite host, what would you say?"
Of course, because I'm a dumb American I say, of course, “We're the host and Mexico's the parasite.” He's like, “No, no, no. You need us more than we need you. You need our cheap labor, you need our drugs. You guys take our culture. It's the opposite way around. You need us far more than we need you.” It was just a fascinating way of looking at their end of things versus the way we look at things with our sort of American imperialistic attitude.
I wanted to touch on something you just mentioned – the unique construct of one of your lead characters, Detective Sonya Cross, having Asperger's. That was in the original Scandinavian show?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's the same.
How do you utilize something like that as a narrative engine rather than just a one-dimensional gimmick. Tell me how you're handling that and how it's paying off for you narratively.
Well, when I saw the original – and again, you're reading subtitles so all the nuance of language is out the door – when I watched the original, I immediately picked up on the idea that there was something wrong with this woman. That mystery pulled me into the second episode – it wasn't so much that there are a couple of bodies left on the bridge. I've seen detectives arrive at a crime scene – that's the beginning of 100 shows. What was interesting was that there was something wrong with this woman. I didn't know what it was, but then I got to the second episode, and I began to understand.
Fifty percent of the people that watched the original show, including my writing partner Meredith Stiehm, didn't like the character. She thought, Oh, she's just another hard-assed, flinty, bitchy female detective, I've seen that before. A lot of people who watched the original didn't pick that up. And we had the same problem in the testing of our show where people would watch and go, “Oh my God, I can't stand that character. They were judging her because they thought she was being thoughtless or bitchy.” But this is someone who has a real diagnosed disorder. So that was an interesting thing to play with, and I tell you…
You seem to have taken care of that by showing clearly her insensitivity, but also showing flashes of a kind of lost, helpless vulnerability.
Yeah, and that's a little endearing to audiences… You know, I worked in network for a while. You're so trained in having every character eminently likeable. If something comes back out of testing that they don't like a character, it sets off fire alarms at a network. Cable is the province where you can make characters not only unlikeable but they can do unlikeable things and the audience will respond to them.
And in Marco you have the opposite problem, he's incredibly charming. He's very easy and affable. Everyone that watches the pilot falls in love with Marco. I'm not asking you to fall in love with Sonya, I'm asking you to say, “What's up with this woman? Where is this going to take me and how are these two going to learn to work together?” We get so accustomed to comfort food with our characters… In a lot of the reviews I saw people were reacting strongly to Sonya in a negative way and some in a positive way and I think that's a good thing, that sort of strong reaction.
Is it sort of freeing to be able to have a lead character with some unlikeable qualities?
Yeah, immediately. Here's the thing, unlike a person who's just an asshole, who can choose not to be an asshole, Sonya can't choose not to have Asperger's, so when she enters a scene, there's a tension in the scene. Is she going to blow it or not, is she going to learn, is she going to be able to do her job and to talk to this person without her Asperger's making that impossible or difficult?
And it makes what would be a mundane exchange much more fun to watch?
Oh yeah. She walks in and viewers are going to be like, “Oh boy, here we go. Is she going to fuck this up?” That's always sort of a tension.
You’ve done a lot of TV. It seems like, particularly with serialized cable dramas, it all comes down to the pacing of what is revealed to the viewer. Are there any fundamental rules you've learned about how to capture the right pacing, meting the information so that it keeps the viewer coming back, engaged, wanting more?
Well, sort of… I was a novelist when I started out. I have three novels and a collection of short stories, so when it came time for this my mantra going in was it should be like a novel. And yet so many novels are eminently easy to put down. One thing a good novel does is drag you through those pages in just the right amount of parsing of information.
The television I'm gravitating toward recently all functions like novels. I mean Mad Men is just a giant fucking novel, it's paced the same way as a novel, you know? Even a show like The Sopranos was almost like a Balzac novel. That's where cable can really shine. You need to give people good characters so they're coming back for that, the characters don't hit reset every week. That's what happens in network a lot of times – they solve the bloody murder and next week it's right back, [like] nothing happened in these people's lives. They don't change much. Cable is the opposite. With cable, every step along the way, every episode, the characters are going through all kinds of incredible changes, and the story is changing…
Again, it's hard for me to say because a lot of it came from my background as a novelist, but that was intentional and deliberate on my part to say, “No, I'm not going to tell you. I'm going to leave you off…” Like you leave people off in chapters of books – leave them hanging, leave them wanting to go to the next chapter.
Does it require a special kind of discipline to do it in serialized television where you're really mapping out the arc over a season?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's kind of scary because you are doing something hoping that the audience will follow you, and you have no reaction to it. It’s kind of like a book. You're finishing the novel before people get to read it so you have no idea if what you intended actually worked. There were storylines that I started that I had no idea where they were going to go, if they were going to go anywhere, but I would service them every week. You know, the network is always at you going, “We don't like the storyline. It's not going anywhere. Blah, blah, blah,” And you have to say, “No, fuck it. I know it's going to get somewhere, just give me the time to do it and it'll get there." And so far it's worked out.
It'll be interesting to see if the audience catches up with the show, if they follow it the same way that I intended it. I don't know what people's reactions are going to be and I expect a variety of reactions, but that's what makes serialized television on cable, in my opinion, where it’s at right now.
Totally, it’s the Renaissance.
It's weird because, again, novels and short stories were the ultimate to me, but I think it was around the time of The Wire that I began to realize it was one of the few television shows I watched because it actually hit that novel nerve in my brain…
I began to hear people talk about The Wire the way that I would talk about books with my friends. Whereas episodic television, where it's an open and shut case every week, is like you eat that popcorn and then you have the popcorn again next week. A novel is more like a multi-course meal. The Bridge is more a little bit of a multi-course meal, it's asking you to follow what we're doing here. And that, to me, is very exciting. I won't say it's a revolution, but it did sneak up on people.
I remember when Breaking Bad first came around, there weren’t that many people watching or talking about it. Vince Gilligan had the courage of his convictions and stuck to it and it paid off. I trusted him, so I watched and thought, This is going to really go somewhere, he's got a really cool character here. I had no idea it was going to end up where it's ending up now. That's exciting to viewers, and if it's exciting to viewers, it's even more exciting to write because you don't know where things are going to go.
For a decade or more it felt like they kept writing the same story about how written television is dying, unscripted, reality TV has supplanted it forever…
And here we are with shows like yours and Breaking Bad and Mad Men and all the historical dramas that are taking the same approach. It seems like the contrary has happened. Does it feel that way to you?
It's funny because it’s one of those things where you pop your head up out of the weeds and you kind of realize, “Oh my god, it’s happening!” The shows that people are talking about now are the shows that even five or six years ago you couldn't even pitch. Certain people led the way for this, but I do think as the market fractures, more and more you're selling a certain kind of story and people will find that story on a cable network. Now is it pulling down 20 million viewers? No, it's not even pulling down 10 million viewers. But you're servicing people who like that kind of story.
It's like I said, friends of mine, we pass around certain books, mystery novels, and you kind of know everyone's taste. It’s like what happens with alternative music. It defines who you are when you say, I like Mad Men. It makes viewers feel like they're in a little bit of a smaller club, which is always a good thing when you're trying to capture people.