Review: USA’s ‘Dig’ goes from Holy Land mystery to wholly bland dud

“The Big Bang Theory” did an episode in which Amy ruins “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for Sheldon by pointing out that for all of the action and adventure, “Indiana Jones plays no role in the outcome of the story. If he weren”t in the film, it would turn out exactly the same.”

I've watched “Raiders of the Lost Ark” subsequently and, thankfully, Amy didn't actually ruin the movie. I can't dispute her regarding the main character's agency, but it's still an awesome movie, one of the genre's most thrilling achievements.

You cannot, it turns out, ruin “Raiders of the Lost Ark” by pointing out a structure flaw.

You also, fortunately, cannot ruin “Raiders of the Lost Ark” by doing a dreadful story about nefarious forces searching for the Ark of the Covenant, or Ark-adjacent artifacts. But if you could ruin “Raiders of the Lost Ark” merely by desecrating its dramatic objective, USA's “Dig” might come dangerously close.

Let us all be grateful, then, that Gideon Raff and Tim Kring's bungled attempt to somehow dumb down Dan Brown is merely a waste of time and ample talent and not actually much of a black mark on storytelling history.

Neither as involving as “The Da Vinci Code” nor as fun as “The Librarian,” “Dig” is a religiously inflected thriller that offers few thrills and paints only an empty and cartoonish gloss on religious extremism. I can't rule out the possibility that its blatant silliness might encourage some viewers, but its lack of narrative momentum will likely dissuade many more.

That should be enough of a review, but I'll go into a few more details…

You get a good sense of how silly “Dig” is from the the epigraph, which pairs REM's “It's the end of the world as we know it/ I feel fine” with an out-of-context quote from Numbers  about the acquisition of a red heifer. Biblically speaking, the red heifer has absolutely nothing to do with the end of the world or anything other than a ritual sacrifice as part of a purification ritual. It's an odd Biblical detail, but it's not all that exciting. The apocalyptic extension of the quote is an interpretation of another quote in the book of Daniel, but Raff and Kring conflate the two in a way that only teases the logical links that the rest of “Dig” will beg you to make. In fact, nothing in the first three episodes that I've watched actually says anything about an apocalypse or… anything. You either jump on the bandwagon from the epigram, or you're going to be waiting impatiently for even a vague tease, a tease that doesn't come at any point in what I've watched.

But you need to have that backdrop, or else I can't convince you that there are any stakes to what is happening in “Dig.”

The story takes place in three locations.

In Jerusalem, Jason Isaacs plays Peter Connelly, an FBI agent trying to track down an Israeli national responsible for the death of a Senator's child back in the States. One night, he becomes intrigued by a stranger who happens to be an archeology fellow working in the tunnels beneath Jerusalem. While they're skinny-dipping in an underground pool for no reason, they stumble upon a religious ceremony. Anne Heche plays his station boss. They have sex, but no chemistry.

[The FBI does have offices in Jerusalem, even though the jurisdiction is slightly confusing. Don't expect to get any additional insight, though, into why it's meaningful that Isaacs' character is FBI and not CIA or anything else. It's a distinctive choice that Kring and Raff use as shortcut to justify the presence of an American in Jerusalem, rather than exploring in any way.]

In New Mexico, Pastor Billingham (David Costabile) is a fundamentalist religious leader with a hammy Southern accent. He has written a book on Immortality through Jesus. [I had to pause my screener, because the font on his book was nearly unreadable. I hope that that will be fixed before the final version airs, because it seems important.] With the help of initially meek follower Debbie (Lauren Ambrose), he's preparing a young boy for his bar mitzvah. Because of the whole Jesus thing, the bar mitzvah prep is very ominous, in a heavy-handed kind of way. A bar mitzvah happens in the second episode. It's freaking hilarious.

And in Norway, there's a Hassidic Jew babysitting a cow. For three episodes. Nothing else. This is the C-story. Yes, briefly somebody comes after the cow and eventually the hassid and his cow begin to travel. But mostly? It's a guy with a big hat and payot — forelocks, if you prefer — waiting for a cow to grow up. Don't pay too much attention, though, to how quickly or slowly the cow is growing. 

Through three episodes, there are slight connective tissues joining the three worlds, but nothing slightly resembling a central thrust. Down in the tunnels, the red-headed stranger tells the FBI agent that she's been looking for The Ark and he's at least smart enough to respond, “As in 'Indiana Jones'?” but he isn't smart enough to add, “You recall that in the movie that quest didn't end all that well.” There's something about a priestly breastplate and jewels and there's a conversation in which somebody nebulously refers to the power such a thing could have in the right hands and then that person lowers their voice and refers nebulously to what could happen if the thing finds its way into the wrong hands. That conversation is happening with an Israeli police officer who isn't inquisitive enough to go, “Actually, I have no clue what would happen if this artifact finds its way into the right *or* wrong hands” and so we never even get a hint.

I'm not saying that Raff and Kring need to have spelled out what is happening in the first episode, but the people in the show who know what they're trying to bring about keep that to themselves and the people in the show who are trying to prevent what's coming don't know either what they're trying to prevent or that they're trying to prevent something serious. It's all about stakes. If Agent Connelly knows he's trying to prevent the apocalypse, he has more urgency than if he's just trying to solve a murder or protect his own name. If he doesn't know he's trying to prevent an apocalypse, he has no urgency and we feel no urgency for him.

The absurd thing is that if anybody in Hollywood knows the importance of writing with the stakes upfront, it's Tim Kring. You know why you remember “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World”? Because it established clear and amusing dramatic stakes for an entire TV series and made sure that the characters involved knew their clear and amusing dramatic stakes. Everything else in the way that “Heroes” fulfilled its promise may have been increasingly clumsy and increasingly inept, but “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World” was a beautiful template.

“Dig” has no template. Agent Connelly isn't saving the world. He's fleeing his personal demons involving the death of a child.

Why do I know about the death of the child? Because an outside character reads the information off a screen to other characters. But at least that expositional regurgitation informs behavior exhibited by the character. 

Most of the things we learn about Isaacs' character are things that other people tell him about himself.

One character, for example, tells Agent Connelly that he was in the seminary, but dropped out shortly before getting his collar. Nothing in the first three episodes of “Dig” show that Connelly knows anything about religion or cares anything about faith or spirituality. 

That's still better than when Heche's character says to Connelly “What was that course of yours I took at Quantico? Semiotics!” This is the only time we see or hear any indication that Connelly has any interest in or gift with signs or meaning.

And, remarkably, that's still better than when Ori Pfeffer's Detective Cohen explains the organization head-butting with Connelly by telling him, “I don't like you and you don't like me.”

I can excuse maybe a piece or two of clumsily delivered exposition, but for everything tangible that we know about a character to come from things outside characters say about them and for 75 percent of that information to have no organic bearing on the character in the first three hours of what was designed as a six episode series? That's inexcusable.

And it's even more inexcusable, because Jason Isaacs commits so totally to giving Connelly a wounded intensity. Were “Dig” a good show, Isaacs would be the sturdy centerpiece it deserves. Because “Dig” is an awful show, he's the undeserved gravitas that makes you wonder what everybody around him is even doing. Costabile's Southern accent is distractingly bad and he's fairly miscast. Ambrose is one-note and worried. Heche has no character, so she's reading dialogue and occasionally having USA-friendly sex. The Israeli actors all struggle with their dialogue, with Pfeffer as the primary culprit, which isn't even slightly his fault, since Daniel Day-Lewis isn't going to be able to be able to polish a reheated turd like “I don't like you and you don't like me” into a dialogue diamond.

I have to allow for the possibility that some of Pfeffer's dialogue might sound less wooden when you hear it, because even though the pilot for “Dig” was shot last summer and episodes were sent to critics two weeks ago, there were still missing scenes and dialogue that needed to be relooped and this is at least in part because production on “Dig” was a freakshow, which you'll notice even if those scenes have been added by the time “Dig” airs on Thursday.

The story on “Dig” was that Kring and Raff and USA were all psyched to be shooting in Jerusalem. They came to TCA press tour after shooting the pilot and all anybody wanted to talk about was how Jerusalem was another character in the show.

Then that character died. Because of unrest in Israel, only the pilot was shot there. 

I could tell, because I know the backstory.

I could also tell because the first episode, directed by SJ Clarkson, makes some use out of its Israeli settings. There's a texture you get from shooting in the streets of Jerusalem and there are a couple chase scenes in the pilot that go across rooftops and through alleyways that feel like they were shot in a specific place. There's a flavor. 

Subsequent episodes, which were shot in Croatia and then in Albuquerque, become increasingly generic, where a single sign in Hebrew is meant to convince you that a stone walled building must be an Israeli stone-walled building. Scenes become increasingly reliant on interchangeable interiors and the locations stop making you feel like they're key characters to the story. Instead, it's up to orange-tinted filters to convince you that you're in the Middle East. And it's not convincing. 

And even if you didn't know that one episode was shot in Israel and the rest wasn't, you'll know something was up. There are production values that you get by shooting in Israel and the “Dig” production team was more than eager to talk about how essential those production values were when they were getting them, but then USA was more than willing to throw those values out the window when it was decided that the sunk coast was too great to just walk away.

And rather than walking away, USA actually doubled down on the meretricious production values, extending “Dig” from a six episode order to a 10 episode order. I have no clue how much of the first three episodes came from attempts to extend and expand the already thin tale, but somewhere along the way, “Dig” went from a labyrinthine mythology to an expositional morass.

The game with “Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons” and the like are that even if they're written in practically doggerel English, they invite active engagement through both immediate declaration of stakes, but also through puzzles that the main character is solving, because Robert Langdon is, like Agent Connelly, a symbologist, with the difference being that Langdon utilizes his skillset. Nobody in “Dig” is solving puzzles or even doing detective work. 

Instead you get people like Richard Grant's sniveling archeologist saying things like, “I'm finally on the brink of making a discovery which might change the course of history” and nobody saying, “Oh? Tell me what the [bleep] you're talking about.”

You may be saying that from your couch. 

“Dig” isn't an involving mystery, but you may get involved in yelling at your TV to stop being so dumb, but you won”t need a genius like Amy Farrah Fowler to ruin this one.

“Dig” premieres on Thursday, March 5 on USA.