There’s a lot of wild animals prowling the streets of San Bonifacio. The local shady millionaire has real-life giraffes roaming the grounds of his mansion; an incident at the zoo has all kinds of exotic predators and prey roaming the streets. As metaphors go, it’s not exactly subtle – this town is like a jungle! – but that’s beside the point. They look good and they add an extra layer of menace to what is already a dangerous place to be: welcome to the weird world of Briarpatch.
American noir hasn’t been afraid to get a little flamboyant in recent years. Series like Fargo and Reprisal have told twisty tales of people doing wrong with a quirky edge that keeps things just that little bit off balance. Briarpatch takes that trend for off-kilter crime and gives it a stylish southern spin, with a star-heavy cast and plenty of shady goings on in the steamy heat of a small town that’s boiling over with intrigue.
It all starts with a bang. When a car bomb claims the life of police detective Felicity Dill, it brings her sister and professional investigator Allegra “Pick” (as in “pickle”) Dill (Rosario Dawson) back to her home town. Well, it’s not just her dead sister that has Allegra stepping back onto home turf in an extremely stylish pants suit – she might want answers, but as she makes clear, she and her sister weren’t all that close.
For one thing, it’s the week of her high school reunion and as she’s now working for a Senate subcommittee, it’s time to let her classmates know she’s come up in the world. For another, it’s also her birthday, and what better place to spend your special day than at home? Though, the death of her sister does cast a pall over the celebrations there.
But most important of all, her day job has her looking into some seriously shady business taking place in and around San Bonifacio. This criminal conspiracy involves her old flame turned owner of a giraffe-featuring mansion, Jake Spivey (Jay R. Ferguson), a man who has done very well for himself in recent years while still remaining a colourful cowboy hat-wearing character at heart. Though being involved with an arms dealer like the sinister Clyde Brattle (Alan Cummings) could soon take the gloss off his swaggering ways.
It quickly becomes clear that for a cop Felicity wasn’t exactly on the straight and narrow. She was deep in a relationship with fellow (married) officer Gene Colder (Brian Geraghty), and her personal finances were dubious to say the least – and that’s not counting a hefty life insurance policy of which Allegra is the beneficiary. Whether the corruption goes all the way up to Chief Raytek (Kim Dickens) remains to be seen; at least Allegra has a chatty local lawyer (Edi Gathegi) she can rely on to bring her up to speed.
Based on the award-winning novel by Ross Thomas, Briarpatch isn’t short on offbeat characters or mystery, but it’s Dawson’s performance that holds it all in place. She gives a refreshingly laid-back low-key performance here, playing the kind of hard-boiled level-headed character women rarely get a shot at in noir. She’s a straight-shooting problem solver who gets the job done with the minimum of fuss… or at least, when there is some fuss going on, she’s the one who puts a stop to it.
At the other end of the scale, the often coke-addled town bigwig Spivey sets the show alight with every scene he’s in, thanks to a performance from Ferguson (best known for his equally bearded work on Mad Men) that takes the scenery in both hands and chews on it with a glee that’s impossible to dislike. He’s hardly alone in stealing every scene he’s in; this series is packed with memorable characters ranging from Cyrus (Charles Parnell), an always-eating Mr Fixit for Allegra’s boss to Harold Snow (Timm Sharp), who’s not so much a man as a walking mullet.
This kind of noir is usually about a peaceful small town with a dark underbelly, but over the course of ten episodes this particular series proves to be more subtle than that. There’s plenty of dodgy activity behind the mystery of who murdered Allegra’s sister, but San Bonifacio isn’t rotten to the core. Here, good and bad live side by side – the town can handle both. Like everything in Briarpatch, it’s complicated, and untangling what’s going on is going to take everything Allegra’s got.
Briarpatch season 1 is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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