How ‘The Bridge’ rebuilt itself into the best show you’re not watching

Senior Television Writer
09.10.14 63 Comments

FX

In this Golden Glut of TV drama, it's hard for any new drama to break through and find an audience, because there are so many options out there (not to mention easy access to most of the great dramas of the previous 50 years). It's harder still for a show that has an audience and loses it to get those people back, no matter how good it becomes.

Case in point: FX's “The Bridge,” the current belt-holder for Best Show You're Not Watching.

In season 1, the ratings weren't huge, but they were decent enough for FX to order a second season. The problem is that the original batch of episodes – translating the Scandinavian series “Broen” from the Denmark/Sweden border to the one dividing the U.S. and Mexico, complete with a relatively faithful rendering of that show's serial killer story – wound up turning a lot of viewers off as the season went along. Elwood Reid, who ran the show in the first season with Meredith Stiehm, and has run the second on his own, admits now that he quickly got bored with the serial killer plot (and stuck with it because they were hired to adapt the very successful “Broen”), and it showed in the work. The parts of the series that worked largely did so independently of the hunt for the killer, like the wary partnership between El Paso cop Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger, finding complexity inside Sonya's undiagnosed Asperger's tics) and her Juarez counterpart Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir, so charming and world-weary), the sense of atmosphere along the border, and the many strange people populating both sides of that border. (My favorite: Thomas M. Wright giving a mesmerizingly bizarre performance as Steven Linder, who started out as a red herring for the serial killer before being revealed as a coyote who spirits abused and endangered Mexican woman to safer refuge in Texas.)

Reid and Stiehm wrapped up the serial killer story with two episodes to spare, and used the remaining time to tease the second season they hoped to get. And though Stiehm returned to her previous job writing for “Homeland,” Reid has been able to reinvent the show in a much more successful form. The season 1 arc has been alluded to a few times, but for the most part it's a new show(*) that, at its best, resembles “The Wire” in both its sprawl and its patience. Reid spun an elaborate web of stories this year, involving a rogue DEA agent hunting Juarez kingpin Fausto Galvan (the marvelously no-nonsense Ramon Franco), reporters Daniel Frye (Matthew Lillard in the best role of his career) and Adriana Mendez (Emily Rios, the perfectly dry foil for Lillard) following the cartel's money trail until it leads to a major Mexican conglomerate, and the search for Eleanor Nacht (Franka Potente, outstanding and strange as usual), a shunned Mennonite who works as Galvan's bookkeeper and leaves a trail of bodies behind her during a trip to El Paso.

(*) For that reason, where I usually say you need to watch every episode of a serialized drama, in this case I might suggest just sampling the pilot and episodes 12 & 13 from last year before jumping into the new season. That'll give you enough of the necessary backstory to follow what's happening, and you can always go back for the rest if it turns out you really like Sonya, Marco, Frye and company.

It was slow going at times in the season's early weeks, but by the mid-point, all the set-up began to pay off in thrilling and/or poignant fashion. The show is on a fantastic run of episodes right now (including tonight's, which airs, as usual, at 10 on FX).

Unfortunately, the ratings have been even lower this season (down about 39% among adults 18-49, and 32% among overall viewers). Every time I've praised the new episodes, I've heard from people who didn't like what they saw a year ago and chose not to come back. They're surprised to hear that it's been so much better.

I have no idea what FX is going to do with the show. Last year's renewal happened very late in the season (after 11 of 13 episodes had aired) even by FX's patient standards. I understand the abundance of choice right now, and people's reluctance to give many shows a first chance, let alone a second. But “The Bridge” is awfully good right now – too good to let go of.

Yesterday, I spoke with Reid about his decision to reinvent the show this year, the mistakes he felt he made in season 1, his hopes for the future, and more. It's a long conversation, and at times gets into plot developments that have already happened this season. If you're thinking about jumping in (or back in), you might want to save it to read later. But it's a very candid discussion about a show that has finally lived up to all the potential I saw in it a year ago.

Going into season 2, with Meredith gone back to “Homeland,” this was your show to run. What approach did you want to take with it?   

Elwood Reid: The approach was to right a wrong, to kind of reset the show. We were a serial killer show, tracking a serial killer, and tracking the original “Broen” series. And I knew you could not do another serial killer show. You probably could if there was an appetite for it, I didn't think that's what the show wanted to be. So I had to reset the show, which meant resetting our characters, giving you a little more of the world and then, for better or for worse, attempting to start to tell a very large story. I know early on, a lot of the critics – you included – were pointing out, “Well, it's a little slow. I don't know how it's going to tie together.” That was always the plan. I was going to do the slow food version of TV. My hope was the payoff would be worth it.

You know that the serial killer arc from last season wasn't my favorite part of it. Did you feel like the David Tate story was working for the show? Was it always intended to end a couple of episodes before the season did, or did you and Meredith say, “Let's be done with this and move on”?

Elwood Reid: Both Meredith and I were very impatient about it. But the problem was FX had seen the original series, which I think was 10 episodes. It ended on the bridge, where the serial killer tries to kill that show's version of Marco. FX wanted us to stick to that template, because it was very successful, and they really liked it. The version we had, we were both  impatient for it, and I think there was a little bit of a disagreement over how much to lean into the serial killer. Again, I'm not a big fan of the serial killer stuff. I think if you're going to do it, you really have to lean into it like “Hannibal” does, and we weren't doing that. And I kept saying, “Look at what 'Hannibal' is doing.” I know “Hannibal” was a show not a lot of people watched early on, but that's a show that does it really well. So I was concerned about the serial killer, but we tried our best to honor the original series and do our own version of it. But both of us were impatient about it, and we wanted the show to be something else. We didn't know what we wanted it to be, but we both wanted the show to be something else.

So at a certain point, you just decided to end the story at episode 11 and do two episodes that would set up a second season if you ever got a second season?

Elwood Reid: Exactly. And it's funny, because a lot of people wrote about it like it hadn't been done before. But I think because both of us were bored with the serial killer storyline, we wanted to get on with it with our characters. What it did to our characters was useful, what it did to Marco was useful for the second season. But as far as week in, week out entertainment, to tune into a cat-and-mouse game with a serial killer, I felt like I'd seen that show a million times. And to be brutally honest, as a writer, I think that shows in the writing. When creators of shows are bored with something, it might be at a microscopic level, but perceptive viewers pick up on that. Again, not to compare us to “Hannibal,” but “Hannibal” is a complete dive into the pool of serial killers. It's almost like a fantasy, like “Game of Thrones.” We weren't doing that. We were using it as a plot device. When that plot device ceased to be useful to us, we quickly threw it away, and gladly threw it away.

Although at the end of that two episode epilogue, you did have Marco go to Fausto Galvan to arrange for David Tate's murder. You could have been done with Tate entirely, but you kept him part of the story.

Elwood Reid: That was mostly my idea. I think Meredith was even bored with that. The only thing I wanted was to further the relationship between Fausto and Marco. What was intriguing to me, and I hope it pays off well this season, is it allowed Fausto to put his finger on Marco. Again, it was a device: a way to bridge the two seasons. As we all watch shows right now, with most people, the first season of “The Bridge” is going to be their entry point to “The Bridge,” and it can't feel like they changed channels completely. My nod to that was to use the David Tate figure as a way for Fausto to gain leverage over Marco, which would then in season 2 hopefully yield a lot of cool results.

And then at a certain point, Marco gives up on it, Fausto kills him off, and we never need to hear about David Tate again.

Elwood Reid: (laughs) Exactly. We kept putting that off. I wanted to do that right away in the first episode, but I realized I had too much stuff to deal with. It would be better to put it on hold for a while. We were happy to put that behind us. I think we were pretty successful with the way we ended that story. It's not an easy killing. It's a pretty cruel, harsh killing that happens to David Tate, and Marco now understands that he's in thrall to Fausto.

That killing happens at the end of one of your strongest episodes so far, and you intercut the murder with Marco receiving his bogus commendation for bravery. You talked before about how some of us were a little impatient at the start of the season, but that episode was the start of a run where you really started paying off all that patience. All the slow build turned out to be worth it, because all the stories began to converge.

Elwood Reid: I'll be the first to admit this. I would love to say to you that it was always the plan to do that. If anything, I think FX was a little more impatient for us to throw all of our wood on the fire. I, myself, when I'm writing and watching TV shows, when I see shows desperately burning story, that at the end of the day, it sucks all the oxygen out of the show. I'd rather have the show build satisfying in the middle and the end than run out of gas or fuel around episodes 10 or 11, which a lot of shows do. They're in such a hurry to make noise and make connections and burn storyline. For right or wrong, I was trying to do a more novelistic storytelling, with shows I like. People forget this now, but “Game of Thrones” took forever to make connections. Now, we look back and everyone loves that show, but I remember lots of people were out on that show, because it seemed too complicated. They had the book to fall on, but I was trying to do something similar and be as ambitious as those shows are.

One of the things you seemed to be setting up throughout season 1, but especially in those closing episodes, was the idea that season 2 would be about the lost girls of Juarez. And you've dealt with that a little with Eva's story, but the main arc has been about this war between the cartel and the DEA. What led to that pivot away from the lost girls?

Elwood Reid: Two versions. One is, that's a real thing. The women of Juarez is a real thing. These are not fictional victims of Hannibal Lecter, and it's a very complicated issue. I've been down there, I've been to the vigils, I met one of the mothers who lost her daughter. It's a very sad, heartbreaking situation. I did not want to ride in like arrogant American writers and be like, “Our cops can solve this,” put a little bow on it and put it in a box. We want it to be like the way drugs were in “The Wire”: something that's never going to be solved, and will hang over the whole show. And if we get a third or fourth season, we'll get into the aspects of those girls, but it's going to haunt the series. I don't for any stretch of the imagination that when the show ends, that we'll have revealed the killer of all these girls of Juarez. It's a socio-economic situation, a cultural thing that's deeply embedded down there. I was very very nervous about having a simplistic, reductive solution to that crime. But I wanted it to haunt the series. Just like at the end of “The Wire,” nothing has changed in the drug trade. No one has solved the drug business, no one has put all of the bad guys away, and the machine grinds on. That was always my plan with the dead girls of Juarez. If we get more seasons, we want to try to really get into the emotional weight of those crimes, and really live with them. There was a plan early on this season for Sonya to get involved with Adriana's disappeared sister, but we put it off, because it was one too many storylines.

Speaking of having so many storylines, you brought in Jack Dobbs to shed some light on Sonya's feelings about her murdered sister, what Hank did in shooting Jim Dobbs in the head, but then Sonya kicked Jack out and we haven't seen him since. Was that storyline always designed to end early after it caused the schism between Sonya and Hank, or did you realize at some point that the season was getting too busy and Jack had made his point?

Elwood Reid: It's a complicated issue. It has a lot to do with actor availability. We stole him from Australia, we had to bring him in on a visa to act, because he doesn't live and work here. The goal of Jack was to reset Sonya's character a little bit and then have her past come back and haunt her, and then put this mistrust on Hank. She hands off the mistrust from Jack Dobbs to Hank, and that carries through to the end of the season. We toyed with the idea of bringing Jack back and having a big sting at the end of the season. One thing we were toying with was to show Jack Dobbs picking up a young girl who was all messed up on drugs at a truck stop, and cast doubt on the audience's mind: Did he help his brother? But again, too many storylines, and at that point, it seemed to be becoming this hunt for Eleanor and Fausto, and Sonya and Marco's relationship. That was a conscious decision on my part to focus what Sonya should be focusing on, because it would have been disingenuous, I think, for her to be mooning about Jack having left her when Marco was in serious trouble and Eleanor is out there killing people.

One of the things I really like about tonight's episode is how streamlined it is, with almost all of it dealing with the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

Elwood Reid: Once you focus that action with Hank and Eleanor – Franka, when she's in a scene, she really centers the show, not to mention Lyle Lovett's weird presence. That was always the intention. The events of episodes 9 and 10 were originally planned for episode 6, but I realized we had so much storyline that we kept pushing it off. And then once we did the massacre, I definitely wanted to have an aftermath storyline. I feel like a lot of TV shows blow everything up, and the next week it's back to normal. I really wanted to see what happened right after.

And in a town like El Paso, this is an enormous crime. You can't just let that go.

Elwood Reid: We wanted to live there for a while. As you watch the rest of the season, the repercussions of that play itself out with Sonya and Marco. It went to my larger storytelling philosophy, which is I wanted to show the ripples when you throw a rock into a story pond. I wanted to write about those ripples, versus just the rock going into the water, which I think a lot of television does. It might be too ambitious, but that was the plan from the start.

One of the characters who doesn't survive the massacre is Charlotte. She's one of the very first characters we meet in the series, but she flitted in and out of season 1, and for a lot of season 2, we would see Ray and/or Cesar instead of her when we looked at that corner of the show. Was this an issue with Annabeth Gish's availability, or did you think that character had played out the string?

Elwood Reid: We think the character played out the string. It was a matter of focusing what the crimes were on the border. For us, to show a rich ranch widow actively involved in the cartel stuff somehow lessened what Fausto was doing. There was some comic relief there with Ray and with Cesar, but as the writing went on, I really found the heart of that story to be in Cesar. He's this guy who's massively conflicted because of the situation he finds himself in. He trades one boss for another boss, and then he ends up working for Eleanor, who's probably the worst boss he could possibly have. That became where our storytelling interest went, and finding an exit for Charlotte's character that somehow made some sense, because I didn't want to punish her for what she was doing, because what she was doing seemed pretty naive and reckless. In the reality of the real world out there would've yielded some disastrous results. We struggled for a while to tie it all together. We really wanted her death, if it was going to happen, to center on all of our characters. And it does with the Red Ridge stuff, but it took me a few episodes to build that story in there. I didn't want it to just be, “This is what happens when you're a white rancher who gets into narcotics trafficking.” I wanted to really knit it into all of our characters.

Did you know going into the season what the massacre at Red Ridge was going to be, or did you just figure you would put in this intriguing sequence with Lyle and Franka and figure the rest out later?

Elwood Reid: It was a little bit of both. I knew there was going to be a massacre, and I knew who was going to be there, sort of. What surprised me as I wrote the season was Joe, the DEA agent, was not a guy we originally planned to be there. Anybody could have been there. We definitely knew Charlotte and Cesar would be there, that Fausto and Eleanor would somehow be involved, too. It was the appearance of the DEA agent and how to get Hank involved, too, that evolved later. I had a plan, which was that flash forward was probably going to be episode 6, but I realized I had too much story and bumped it to episode 9. I kind of knew what the repercussions of that massacre were, but I wanted to see how the story developed and how my characters popped.

And once Eleanor, who was the biggest risk we took, popped, I realized she was going to be part of that. When you write a character and then you cast a person to play it, you really don't know if they're going to live up to the amount of story you have. In my mind, when I create a character, I at least have one or two episodes arced out for that character. In Eleanor's case, I had almost an entire season mapped out, but it depended on how Franka came in and performed. I knew from the first scene I saw her in, I was like, “Holy shit.” She really delivered. And that gave me the confidence to go forward with Eleanor. That's something writers don't talk about a lot, is you hold your breath when you're writing for a character, because so many things can go wrong. Maybe it doesn't make the translation from page to screen, and when it does, you quickly recalibrate how much story you have for that character.

Where did Eleanor come from in your mind?

Elwood Reid: It's so weird and so esoteric, and it's worth a little YouTube dive. There is a strange singer-songwriter from the 70s and 80s named Judee Sill. She was in that singer-songwriter camp in California, and she was a bank robber at one point and was addicted to drugs. She was this woman who had started out from an incredibly religious fundamentalist background, and she had a couple of minor hits (like “Jesus Was a Crossmaker”) and always was looking for grace. I watched these videos of her talking about grace, and I thought, “Oh, that's a great character.” Then I watched this film “Silent Light” by Carlos Reygadas, based on a novel by Miriam Toews about this Mennonite community down in Mexico. And I put these two things together and thought, “How would a woman this pious fall so far from grace, and how far would she twist her cosmology to go work for a cartel guy? And wouldn't it be great if you were Fausto, and you had this church lady as your front person? No one would see her coming!” I think my writers thought I was crazy, I came in with all this stuff about (William) Blake, and all this mythology built up about her. One of the things Franka told me was she tried not to play the bad moments of the character, and only play the good moments of the character, which made the bad moments more terrifying. She was really smart with how she approached that character. When you create villains, there's a lot of actors who don't do their work and go right for the bad stuff – right for the fun stuff. “Game of Thrones” is full of those characters where they're capable of horrible things, but it's all the good stuff that's so memorable when you get to all the bad stuff.

Where did the acorn come from?

Elwood Reid: (laughs) One of those things that falls out of my bent and twisted mind. I don't know. In that Blake etching that's on her back, which is “Ghost of a Flea,” there's an acorn involved in that painting, in the bucket of blood. That stuck in the back of my head, and I thought, “There's all these giant oak trees out where we're filming.” In the finale, acorns play into it a bit.

One of the interesting arcs of the season has been these two parallel investigations by the reporters and the cops, and both pairs have split up at various times and gotten back together. Was that intended for one duo to parallel the other?

Elwood Reid: One of the things that the Frye and Adriana characters give you is that those guys are really good at giving you exposition and doing the shoe leather investigative work that sometimes seems tedious to us as an audience when cops do it. But when these two do it, with the colors that those two bring to their roles, it allows you to tell a different side of the storyline. Frye is interested in this much bigger picture, and he was based on a real-life writer named Charles Bowden, who wrote about the El Paso border, and was a messianic figure about the evils of both the Mexican and US governments. Just this drunken old newspaper guy. Frye's trying to tell a bigger story, while our cops – particularly Sonya, who has such a narrow focus – are just trying to do the job. Whereas Frye and Adriana get involved in this much bigger story involving the CIA, and these bigger companies. Both sides are right, but they're trying to find the truth in different ways.

While all these things are going on, you're also trying to keep Eva and Linder in play. What Thomas Wright has done as Linder has given you one of your most memorable characters, but he's so tangential to the main plot at this point. Was it difficult to keep them in play for this long?

Elwood Reid: Yeah. And, look, it's a selfish thing. I think if the network had their druthers, they'd probably want to lose that storyline. It doesn't seem connected to the plot. But the actor is so interesting, and Stephanie Sigman, who plays Eva, really came into his own this year. My challenge as a writer was to try to make you care about these people. I think we succeeded by telling this twisted outlaw love story with these two. Yeah, it was difficult. But if I make a decision to prune that branch, pretty soon I end up with a two-handed cop show set at the border. That's a danger when you're talking about cable television. I hope that people stick around for things that aren't just two-handed cop shows. There had to be a reason to have all of those characters around. And some of them, I did prune off. Others, I made hard choices, and realized it was going to open up my storytelling to this bigger world of the border that I hope I've created. Again, it would've been a lot easier if Thomas Wright hadn't been so good and so mesmerizing. He is really good. You don't get a lot of actors like that in television. I selfishly didn't want him to go anywhere else, so I really worked to integrate him into the story.

What signals, if any, have you gotten from FX at this point? The ratings haven't been there this season. The show has been significantly better, but not enough viewers are coming. What's the sense you have of what will happen?

Elwood Reid: I'm a realist. The numbers aren't there. I would love a third season. We won a Peabody Award. I think this is the kind of show that should be on the air. It's telling a unique story, and it's in Spanish, which not a lot of cable shows can point to doing that. Unfortunately, we're being judged by the basic cable stick, where the numbers do matter. If this was an HBO, maybe they would give it a third or fourth season. I don't know what FX is thinking from all.  All I know is I wanted to improve the show, which I think I did. At the end of the day, I did the show I wanted to do. I wish more people had watched, I think people are catching up to it on DVR, and I'm hoping that people do find the show. I would hate to be one of those shows that in 2 or 3 years, people are going, “Well, that was a great show.” People talk about “Terriers” a lot, and “Terriers” only got one season. I thought that was a really good show. Maybe that's the fate of the show, to be one of the shows that people talk about. But I feel like we have a lot of story to tell, and I did turn the show around this year, as far as getting away from the serial killer mode. I hope we get a third season, but I'm a realist. And I'm also from Cleveland, so I expect the worst to happen.

Given the uncertain future of the show, if people watch to the end of the season, are people going to get a satisfying conclusion to “The Bridge,” if that's what it turns out to be?

Elwood Reid: I had a very very open-ended ending in mind: a sort of strange, poetic ending to the show. The network weighed in as the numbers were coming in and said, “We have to play both sides of the blackjack table here, and if this is the last thing we're going to say about that show, what would it be?” I split the difference. We have a show where the ending does give an ending to this season's storyline, but does open up the possibilities to a third season. I think the show is much bigger than this. It's about this world, and not just about this case or this crime. I left it open to a third season, but also gave you a satisfying ending if you stuck with it for season 2. Both Eleanor and Fausto, there's some closure to their storylines in very different ways. It was with a very heavy heart that I had to do all that stuff. But I had to tell a satisfying end to the series, if that is the case.

The ratings are a bummer. We have a great show and FX is a place I worked a long time to be part of.  I don”t want to be one of those shows people mourn the early demise of.  I want folks to watch.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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