July 10, 2013 at 5:56 AM ET
As FX’s new drama “The Bridge” opens, two detectives find a corpse at the midpoint of the passage between El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. But it is not the body of one person -- the top half belongs to an anti-immigration American judge and the lower half is from the body of a vanished Mexican teenager.
It is a gruesome but highly effective set-up for the first American scripted series to depict life on both sides of the southern border and capture the region’s compelling contemporary geopolitics. With one victim from El Paso and the other from Juarez, and one detective hailing from each city as well, the mystery takes place in a world where English, Spanish, and Spanglish are spoken and children and adults cross the border every day to go to work, go to school or visit family.
“The Bridge” premieres Wednesday and stars Oscar-nominated actor Demian Bichir (“A Better Life” and “The Heat”) and Diane Kruger (“Inglourious Basterds”). Bichir, the only Mexican actor leading an American television series, plays the honorable but flawed Chihuahua state police lieutenant Marco Ruiz, and Kruger is Sonya Cross, an eccentric and awkward homicide detective from El Paso.
What sets it apart from all other scripted fare to date lies in the subtext — the connections between two cities and two countries and the social and class issues that divide them. As Ruiz and Cross try to solve richly complicated homicides, issues plaguing the region in real life pop up: immigration, drug trade, prostitution, white slavery, border security and even the murders of hundreds of women in Juarez in the last two decades.
“I haven’t seen anything like it on television in the U.S.,” said Bichir, 49. “Although it’s not about Mexico or immigration or the dead girls of Juarez, this is a very interesting approach in terms of drama. They share this border and it’s one of the most complicated zones in the world. I like that they talk about the problems on both sides of the border, corruption and violence on both sides. It’s not about blaming one another. It’s just about getting to know each other and their differences and try to work together to solve their own problems.”
FX spent the past five years looking for a show to set in various places along the Mexican border and passed on “The Bridge” when it was pitched to executives as a Canadian border show. As first conceived, the series would have been set in the north to be more visually and tonally reminiscent of the Scandinavian series “Bron” from which it is adapted.
But once co-creators Meredith Stiehm (“Homeland”) and Elwood Reid (“What Salmon Know”) convinced their producing partner, Shine America, to go south with the story, FX perked up. In addition to casting Bichir, FX hired Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo to direct the pilot.
“We think it’s a unique microcosm of a whole lot of fascinating things,” FX president John Landgraf said. “Viewed from a certain angle, El Paso and Juarez are a single city. It’s certainly a single city in the sense that residents of both sides are deeply affected by what happens on the other, and the fact that there’s an enormous amount of economic and biological and familial connects that cross the border. But then it’s not just two different cities -- it’s two different countries. We’ve been interested in this area for a long time. We just needed characters and stories that were strong enough to hold their own against the muscularity of the border.”
Stiehm sees the case that drives the plot as the window into a world inherently filled with drama but difficult to explore because “it can be a really gritty, potentially depressing world.” The pilot episode raises the question: Why is the murder of one woman more important than the murder of hundreds across the border? If the series continues past its first season, Stiehm hopes that issue will become the focus of the show itself.
“We talk a lot about ‘The Wire’ in the writers' room,” Stiehm said. “The girls in Juarez are like drugs in Baltimore. It’s not just one story. It’s a chronic cultural and criminal phenomenon and we can tell that story for years and years. We’re ambitious about bringing that into the center more than it is right now.”
To adapt the show, Stiehm and Reid, who had read Charles Bowden’s “Murder City” and a series of New York Times articles about problems on the border before he knew he would be working on the show, visited El Paso and Juarez. Reid admits he has reservations about fictionalizing the murders of women in Juarez after meeting the family of one of the Juarez victims.
“It’s an incredibly sad, horrible, likely unsolvable thing and I don’t want to just do it for entertainment purposes,” he said. “These are real people who have lost daughters, mothers. It’s a real thing. Hopefully, if we’re shedding a light on it, we would do a bit of good but I am a little worried about it.”
In the show, there is a serial killer at work with political motivations. But as in real life, the murderer is only a small part of the dangers women in Juarez have been facing for decades.
“We feel that it’s not valid to provide a neat answer with a bow on it to a problem that doesn’t have an answer,” Landgraf said. “What you can do is highlight the ecology of what’s going on there and you can solve a portion of it, but you can’t solve all of it because it’s more complicated than that.”
Bichir said he appreciates the way producers heed his counsel when it comes to the use of Spanish on the show and maintaining authentic Mexican accents. With time, he hopes “The Bridge” will allow viewers to see aspects of Juarez beyond the predictable grit and despair.
“When you open a shot in Juarez and the streets are filthy and the walls are falling down and you have a sense of a decaying environment, that’s too Hollywood for me,” he said. “That’s not real. I understand it’s a way of contrasting two different countries. But Mexico is a modern country. If you look for a filthy corner in Los Angeles, I’m sure you’ll find many. A lot of people think that in Juarez we don’t have restaurants, hospitals, schools or power or water. I understand why it’s being done that way, but I just hope in the future we can stay away from stereotypes.”
Even though the series is entirely fictional, Bichir sees the value in addressing the area’s conflicts “because everything that happens in the planet we have to be aware of ... it’s interesting that American television can slip into this territory and make it interesting and more relatable to people. It’s fictional but at the same time it’s very interesting and it’s definitely important.”