“It stays with you,” says the sign welcoming visitors into the small, sleepy Texas border town of San Bonifacio, the setting for USA Network’s compellingly quirky, new pulpy crime drama Briarpatch. Indeed, the town does tend to stay with a person — but perhaps not in the manner the tourism board had intended, given that the little burg seems to have more crooks, killers and just plain unusual characters per square mile than some larger cities.
One person whom the town has stuck with despite being gone for many years is Allegra Dill (Rosario Dawson). Now a professional investigator working for a senator serving the San Bonifacio area, Allegra is brought back to her hometown when her police officer sister is murdered.
Originally intending to stay a few days and grieve her sister, Allegra’s investigative skills are almost immediately tuned in to the strange circumstances surrounding her sister’s death, and she is determined to solve it. On top of that, her boss has requested that while she’s in the area, she question Jake Spivey (Jay R. Ferguson), with whom she happens to have a bit of a past. Spivey was an associate of an illegal arms dealer (Alan Cumming, in a relatively small but key role) wanted by the feds. Could the two investigations be connected somehow?
Briarpatch is based on the Edgar Award-winning 1984 novel of the same name by Ross Thomas, and USA says this inaugural season of the planned anthology series that features Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail as an executive producer “celebrates the beloved genres represented by Thomas’ book — a stylish blend of crime and pulp fiction — while updating his sense of fun, danger and place for a new generation.”
One primary area where the series updates the book is in the main character, which was originally a man named Benjamin Dill. But Dawson’s Allegra Dill takes no back seat to any male hero in her toughness, hard drinking and hard-hitting obsession with learning the truth and getting justice for her sister, even as she affects an outwardly world-weary cynicism.
“That was all Andy [series developer Andy Greenwald],” explains Dawson about the changes to the story. “Andy is one of the few people who’s probably read all of Ross’ books. He’s a huge fan of his, and this was one of the stories that he always felt could be modernized and presented in a different way.”
A character like Allegra, in a setting like this, is certainly not unknown to Dawson: Her career has found her starring in similarly gritty, hard-boiled fare like Sin City (2005), Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” segment of Grindhouse (2007) and the Netflix series Daredevil (2015-16). The actress, who also serves as a producer for Briarpatch, is at least every bit as good as she’s been in those roles in this series.
“What was cool about [Allegra],” says Dawson, “is that I have played a lot of characters who posture very strongly, very confidently, sometimes quite aggressively, but not with the quiet strength that she shows up with.
“[There’s] also a coldness, a severity to her … a lack of intimacy with her that I’ve never gone through [in real life]. It was just so wildly juxtaposed, because every other weekend I’m flying back home for my dad’s chemo treatment, and then I’m coming back to this woman who didn’t even see her sister until three years previous. She’s so cut off. She doesn’t have friends. … There’s no softness, or gentleness, or real vulnerability that she expresses.”
Dawson’s performance is bolstered by the series’ eye-poppingly lovely and colorful neo-noir setting, brought brilliantly to life by various directors. The series absolutely looks cinematic, so it’s not surprising that some of its episodes were previewed at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival last fall. The drama’s tone and backdrop are effectively set in the premiere episode by director Ana Lily Amirpour, a great choice who brings stunning visual elements similar to what helped distinguish her work in the feature film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), as well as in the direction she’s done for other television series like Legion and Castle Rock.
Despite the blistering sun of the desert town all these directors bring to life, there is plenty of darkness in San Bonifacio, thanks to the supporting cast of offbeat characters Allegra encounters — many of whom have their own secrets, related to her sister’s death or otherwise, revealed as she kicks up the dust of the community. The memorable characters don’t only include humans, either. Given the fact that someone has set most of the local zoo’s animals free, the occasional rogue tiger or kangaroo could suddenly pop up in a scene or be wandering the streets at any given moment.
Fans of Tarantino or David Lynch films, or of Fargo and its TV series adaptation, will certainly appreciate Briarpatch’s setting and its collection of quirky and shady folks brought to life in often simultaneously fun, threatening and surrealistic manners. But readers of the original book should also be satisfied, despite any changes. Dawson believes the essence of the tale remains, at least if anecdotal evidence regarding one fan is an indication.
“My cousin’s husband,” Dawson recounts, “[said of] he and his twin brother, ‘We’re the only two people who’ve read all of Ross’ books in the world.’ He was like, ‘I just want to know: Do you drink in a hotel a lot?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ He was like, ‘OK, then you didn’t ruin it. Maybe you catch the certain important characteristics.”
Briarpatch, Thursdays at 10pm ET on USA Network beginning Feb. 6.
Additional reporting by Ryan Berenz