An undercooked central mystery plays second fiddle to surreal style in a new neo-noir fronted by Rosario Dawson.
This recap of Briarpatch Season 1, Episode 1 contains spoilers.
Anyway with a brain knows that Rosario Dawson deserves not one, but many series’ to call her own – not as a supporting character, such as the always-welcome presence she played in Marvel’s various collaborations with Netflix, but a proper, bona fide, Rosario Dawson show. Now, she has one: Briarpatch, a bizarre murder-mystery wrapped up in neon-tinged, desert-dry neo-noir that is intensely watchable, even if it isn’t always worth making a fuss over.
I say watchable because it’s always fun when a show runs with familiar tropes and applies its own wacky embellishments and attitudes, which is exactly the case in the Briarpatch pilot. Influences are varied and obvious, ranging from the Coens to Lynchian surrealism, and an odd creative team comprising Andy Greenwald, Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) and, at least in the first episode, Ana Lily Amirpour, creates a show that is off-kilter and frequently inscrutable, but never less than stylish and arresting.
Dawson plays Allegra Dill, an unflappable investigator who returns to her wacky hometown of San Bonifacio following the car-bombing death of her cop-cum-landlady sister. Briarpatch Episode 1 is quick to immerse her – and the audience – in the far-out extravagances of this weird place, where zoo animals roam free and the criminal underworld is populated by well-chosen actors playing a variety of gonzo characters, including most notably in the Briarpatch pilot Jay R. Ferguson, a long way from The Conners, as an ex-Army weapons dealer and Allegra’s childhood friend.
This is a part which seems on some level written for Dawson, who wears the male-dominated archetype as well as her various bright designer pantsuits. The script has her too buttoned-up to be cared for anytime soon, but Briarpatch Episode 1 just needs her to be noticed – and she is, by everyone in town and by an audience sucked into the black-hold gravity of her on-screen charisma. Emotion is a flimsy thing here; we’re not given a sense of how much Allegra cared for her sister beyond her obvious desire to uncover the truth, and we feel little to nothing for her sister, who dies in the opening scene of the Briarpatch pilot before we’ve even figured out who she is. But none of this seems accidental. Something tells me this isn’t the kind of show which requires an emotional hook on which to hang its murder-mystery – on the contrary, that mystery itself often seems surplus to requirements.
While I might have forgotten the point a few times in Briarpatch Episode 1, I won’t forget the episode’s effortless cool quite so easily. The ensemble is having so much fun – even Dawson, who is required to show little emotion at all, can’t hide her happiness to be here – that it’s contagious. The only problem that might emerge is if the show can’t find the right tone when its plot elements inevitably coalesce into something more impactful. Cool can carry a pilot, but it can only carry it so far.
Still, that’s speculation at this point. First impressions engendered by Briarpatch Season 1, Episode 1, though, are pretty great; a fun, funny, unpredictable and stylish romp through a madcap neo-noir funhouse. I’m looking forward to visiting again.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.