Briarpatch” (Thursdays, USA) is the latest prestige murder-mystery series to clog up modern TV screens, and whether you stick with it after the first two episodes – available for free on the USA app – will depend on your appetite for depressive lead investigators and small-town weirdness. Rosario Dawson, not once cracking a smile, plays Allegra “Pick” Dill, a federal agent on leave who is investigating the car-bomb murder of her younger sister in her hometown of San Bonifacio, Texas.
Although Allegra hadn’t seen Felicity (Michele Weaver) in three years, and hadn’t been to her hometown in 12 years, she’s mourning as she looks into the “who” and “why” behind the car bombing – as well as a later bombing aimed at the local police chief. While it’s understandable that Allegra isn’t projecting sunshine and roses, one gets the impression that she is a downbeat person all the time – tired and annoyed by everything.
San Bonifacio, under the pen of Andy Greenwald, has more than its share of quirky people, some of them annoying. These are capital-C Characters that David E. Kelley would be proud of. Another Kelley-esque touch: A zoo break-in has left animals scattered, including a tiger that hasn’t been caught yet.
Among the human oddballs are old-school newspaperman Freddie (John Aylward), who digs into the case with the same gusto with which he smokes and drinks. There’s also the interim police chief, Eve (“Fear the Walking Dead’s” Kim Dickens), who throws insults and a basket of wings at Freddie when he enters the cop bar.
All sorts of “My Name Is Earl” extras are peppered in between, including a renter in Felicity’s apartment complex, Cindy (Allegra Edwards). She tries and utterly fails to seduce Allegra, who now owns the building as per Felicity’s will.
That will had been overseen by her lawyer, Singe (Edi Gathegi), the most likable person in the cast. He seems to genuinely want to help Allegra get to the bottom of questions such as how the heck Felicity could afford to purchase a $400K complex on a cops’ salary.
The mysteries pile up – maybe too high. By the end of episode two, we focus on ex-gun-runner Jake Spivey (Jay R. Ferguson). He’s the level of rich where he owns giraffes, and he’s also a person of interest for the feds and a target of an off-screen former criminal colleague.
As The Units’ electronica tune “High Pressure Days” spins on Jake’s turntable, we get a montage of more information. Jake, playing on their friendship, perhaps tricked Allegra into revealing that he’s being targeted by his former colleague. And Eve and Freddie perhaps staged their clash at the cop bar.
Based on a novel by Ross Thomas, “Briarpatch” starts off as a straight murder mystery then keeps adding layers, and I’m not sure if that’s for better or worse. Luckily, its brand of weirdness doesn’t make the narrative harder to follow, even though Greenwald is a veteran of the “Legion” writing staff.
It’s a bit like “Sharp Objects,” in that an investigator (a journalist in that miniseries) returns to her hometown to probe a mystery with personal connections. Both shows illustrate a perhaps exaggerated, perhaps inherent weirdness to small Southern towns, more starkly noticeable after you’ve been gone a while.
Parts of Albuquerque, N.M., nicely stand in for the Texas desert town, especially in a scene where Jake and Allegra chat and parry, each hoping to learn something. They walk past closed-down shops, new construction and empty lots. San Bonifacio is dying, perhaps, but there’s still something about it that someone is killing for.
The competence of “Briarpatch’s” production is high, but despite its bevy of Characters, it’s not open enough to be an engaging study of any single one. After two hours, we know little about the lead. Even the nature of Allegra’s Senate subcommittee gig is unclear; when someone asks what the job means, she says “Whatever they want it to mean.”
Allegra would rather be anywhere else — except that she needs answers. Her unfocused vibe carries to the viewer, especially in this era of more top-shelf murder mysteries than a person can watch, unless they are a full-time TV critic assigned only to this genre. How much do we need answers, and how much do we want to watch something else?