Any series that begins with a car bomb, giraffes running wild and a white-suited Rosario Dawson deserves attention. For USA, the neo-noir “Briarpatch” instantly rewards its audience with a fun and raucous premiere. Developed by Andy Greenwald and Sam Esmail, “Briarpatch” bases itself on the Ross Thomas book of the same name but changes plenty of the material to feel relevant to the world today. The series follows investigator Allegra Dill (Dawson) after her sister’s murder forces a return to her hometown. The resulting story gets to be weird, silly, and deeply emotional. In the process, “Briarpatch” showcases an encyclopedic knowledge of pulp crime tropes and a Coen Brothers aesthetic.
“Briarpatch” loving approaches its source material with excitement to play into, yet dispel the tropes that define the genre. “Mad Men” alum Jay R. Ferguson reminds the audience that there’s “always a dead girl,” but “Briarpatch” never lets you lose the emotional thread that ties Dill to the case. Even if the Dill sister became estranged, blood ties us to even the most curious cases. Dawson plays Dill as the girl who got out of the small town, but her return feels cosmically fated. Even though we’re given plenty of background on her globe-trotting life, she feels worn by the years on the road. Dawson gets to showcase wit and emotion, creating an endearing fish-out-of-water despite returning to her hometown.
The tone could be challenging, but Greenwald seems keenly aware of how to maximize his performers. Dawson gets the most out of the show, which gives her the most compelling work she’s done in years. For the first time since “Unstoppable,” she gets to be the smartest person in the room while also showcasing her comedic timing. Ferguson’s persona as a southern gentleman recalls “Knives Out,” and there’s a universe where “Briarpatch” feels like a sister series to Johnson’s fun whodunnit.
However, while the hard-boiled Coen Brothers homage gets to be fun, it also gets very weird. Animals, including Kangaroos and Tigers roam the streets. Half-naked characters utter hilarious dialogue while they watch extreme violence. “Briarpatch” may not always knock these scenes out of the park in the pilot, mostly because it needs to lay out its complicated exposition. However, in later episodes, the show slows these moments down to maximum comedic effect. This kind of genre storytelling is rare, and its exciting to see it executed on such a high level.
The biggest issue in the first few episodes comes from its pace. The pilot feels like an exposition dump at times, even as it gets to showcase its oddball perception of the world. There might be too much going on in some scenes, while others seem to be odd just for the sake of it. Some of these issues go away in subsequent episodes, but this could become a problem for “Briarpatch” if it gets a little too random. At the same time, the moments of brilliance cash in on the hilarity of the situation in ways few shows can. Even if we only get one or two of these moments per episode, the highs are undeniable.
“Briarpatch” makes an early claim for the best series on USA. With daring storytelling and a lean towards genre storytelling, it certainly is the most ambitious series on the network today. There’s plenty in “Briarpatch” to like. This upside could make it one of the most exciting shows to watch develop. Fingers crossed that Greenwald and his team can reach that potential.
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“Briarpatch” airs on USA on Thursday nights.