“Briarpatch” opens on a 99-degree morning in San Bonifacio, Texas. A landlady, who is also a police detective, exits her apartment to inquire about the rent from a standoffish upstairs tenant. She gets into her cruiser to leave for work and is promptly killed in a car-bomb explosion.
From its opening moments, “Briarpatch” presents itself as a trope-subverting, expectation-destroying amendment to the neo-noir genre. Following the disturbing explosion sequence, “Briarpatch” introduces its reluctant heroine Allegra Dill (Rosario Dawson, “Luke Cage”) who returns to the small Texas town to mourn her sister, the murdered detective. Allegra sweeps into San Bonifacio, a chaotic town plagued by corruption and a recent zoo animal breakout, with a cool exterior entirely at odds with the heat and confusion of her surroundings.
As Allegra digs into the circumstances of her sister’s killing, her career as a private investigator for a Senate sub-committee interferes. She is soon asked by her employers to depose an old friend Jake Spivey (Jay R. Ferguson, “Mad Men”) about his role in an organized crime network surrounding an elusive fugitive, Clyde Brattle.
Allegra, compelled by her work and complicated feelings for her late sister, has no choice but to immerse herself back into the town she left 12 years earlier, after a mysterious accident that killed her parents. Soon injured in another car-bomb explosion, Allegra and her stoic composure begin to unravel as she delves deeper into San Bonifacio’s bizarre world of lies and corruption.
“Briarpatch,” based off the novel of the same name, seeks to separate itself from other works of the neo-noir genre and present a unique response to tired tropes in TV crime drama. Dawson shines as the guarded and self-assured Allegra. Confident and unflinching, her character takes the “hardened private investigator” role to new territory, especially with her status as a woman of color in a mainly white, Southern town.
In one scene, Allegra interrogates a police beat reporter (John Aylward, “ER”) over dinner at the local press club. Upon seeing her charm the Latino wait staff, he remarks, “How come they treat you like white man?” By acknowledging the racist past of its setting and genre, “Briarpatch” again subverts viewer expectations and skillfully places power back into Allegra’s hands as a competent and talented protagonist.
Part Southern Gothic and part surreal, the visuals of “Briarpatch” reinforce its impact on audiences. The show weaves the worlds of the ultra-wealthy and impoverished seamlessly into its backdrop to create an unmistakably American setting. With the added pressures of political and economic factors, Allegra’s journey to avenge her sister works as a representation of how difficult navigating the country’s moral climate can be.
“Briarpatch” knows exactly what it is and what it wants to be. With this self-awareness in mind, the show near-flawlessly resurrects the noir genre with equals parts grit and levity. The solid cast and compelling writing hold up an already intriguing premise and bring life to a world simultaneously real and fantastical. If the beginning of “Briarpatch” is any indication, the show will continue to captivate its audience with its gorgeous conspiracies and abundance of zoo animals.