I watched so you didn't have to

The “I Spent More Time Thinking About This Than The Guys Who Made It” Review of “The Bridge”

Back in the late 1990s and the early part of 2000s, I had a part time job as a TV critic. It was an interesting thing, inasmuch as I made a few strange acquaintances, and I discovered that fans have a lot invested in their favorite shows. It started as a labor of — well, maybe not love, but certainly as an enjoyable hobby, but because my team and I started right around the point where things started to go downhill, it quickly turned into a weekly slogfest. Things got so bad at one point where I stopped reviewing actual episodes at all, and pre-emptively wrote my snide, acerbic commentary ahead of time. (“It probably sucked, so… fuckit” was our motto towards the end.) Inevitably, we drifted away from the project — it had become too much like work-work, rather than fun-work, and life’s too short to spend doing Internet projects that cause you agony.

This may be why I have a difficult time forming attachments to television these days, and why my TV watching is almost entirely opportunistic, save for a couple of UK shows that get stolen on a regular basis.

One of the best pieces of TV I’ve seen in the past couple of years was “Battlestar Galactica,” so when I learned that Chief TyrolAaron Douglas was going to be playing a Serpico-esque cop in a new CTV series, “The Bridge,” I naturally thought I should pay attention. The pilot episode was somewhat promising, and the premise itself certainly holds a lot of potential: cop plans to clean up the department, the city, and the world, at some considerable risk to his/her own life. Yeah!

Only, you know, not so much. I’ve now watched all 11 episodes that have run on CTV this spring, and I have some… issues… with the show.

It may be that series like “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “The Wire,” “The Shield,” and — hell — even “NYPD: Blue” and the various action shows have set up unrealistic expectations with regards to episodic law enforcement drama. Nobody who watches “Law & Order” would think that the NYPD cops, as portrayed in that show, were of an authentic variety (you do not, for instance, continue working or wandering around while the police ask you questions — the police won’t let you), but at least H:LotS and the others tried hard to make policing that seemed, at least in the first blush, relatively authentic. “The Bridge” doesn’t even go that far, demonstrating a department and a city (we’ll call it not-Toronto, for the sake of argument) that is so dysfunctional and so broken that in the closing episode of the season the Attorney General feels free to threaten the head of the police union (who behaves just like a cop except he’s not a cop anymore) with a personal takedown. Everyone is wiretapped or bugged. Everyone has an agenda. Nobody is in charge. Deals are cut all over the place — Douglas’ character, Frank Leo, trades information about the mayor’s brother-in-law’s use of a police-run escort service in exchange for the thawing of a hiring freeze. “The Bridge” seems to have, as one of its central morals, that there’s no such thing as altruism — everything has a price, even the right thing.

Then there’s the body count. Oh, wow, is this show ever deadly! Over the course of the series I think we saw at least a half-dozen dead police officers, and Frank is complicit in the deaths of at least as many civilians and/or criminals. He actually shoots at least two of them himself — with no apparent investigation or aftermath. The police officers regularly set each other up to be whacked, and when it happens we never seem to see any of the consequences. It used to be that police procedurals treated the lives of their officers with some degree of respect; it had to be sweeps week before you killed a member of the department, because then you could make it a Very Special All-New Episode about the dangers of law enforcement. Someone would get drunk, smash a liquor bottle on the floor, and yell at a co-worker. There are rules about this sort of thing in TV Land.

In not-Toronto, though, the Chief complains in the pilot episode about the costs of a departmental funeral for an officer who committed suicide. I’m surprised Chief Ed Wycoff doesn’t complain about the costs of departmental funerals for actual line-of-duty deaths, though I suppose that perhaps the complaint was not the costs of a funeral for the suicide victim but rather the scheduling; it might be hard to get the entire departmental mourners to show up in two places at once. Maybe the staffing problems in not-Toronto have to do with the occupational hazards rather than departmental funding. I know I’d think twice about taking a job as a police in this city.

If being a police in not-Toronto is dangerous, being a bad guy is even worse. Guns go off, and suspects die, at an alarming rate — a rate that would, in this world at least, prompt an immediate Justice Department investigation into use of force. In this world, police draw their guns infrequently, and use them even more rarely; guns get hauled out, and people get shot (again with virtually no consequences) on a weekly basis. There are references made to the shoot team, major crimes, and internal affairs, but no one ever seems to be suspended or have a shoot come back as anything less than justified. The show seems to suggest that everyone involved had it coming — every bad guy is shown as being thoroughly reprehensible and amoral, and they all act like barking morons — and that the wheels of justice grind better when they’re turbocharged.

“The Bridge” might be trying to suggest that there is no such thing as virtue, and that we live in a world that varies only in degrees of badness. Early on, the series divides the world into two camps — the good guys, lead by Frank Leo and made up of a few trusted police, and the bad guys, lead by Ed Wycoff and the mayor. The bad bad guys (criminals) make appearances only randomly. If you see a new or unusual police in a scene, there’s a good bet he’s going to be working against the theoretical good guys.

I say “theoretical good guys,” because even the good guys aren’t all that good. A particularly interesting and complex moment of the season came when Alex, the former FSB agent turned major crimes investigator, confronts the guy running the prostitution ring. Incensed that the bad guy had the temerity to use Russian girls as prostitutes, Alex basically takes the guy’s family hostage, gives him a gun, and says “you have to put the gun in your mouth and pull the trigger or I’m going to have your family killed.” (The guy does so, and Alex lets the family members go.) Later, Alex is seen drinking a toast “to all the pretty Russian girls, who never made it home.” This was a startling, dark turn: up to this point, Alex’s character was a straight arrow, an honest cop; afterward, it was impossible to see him in the same light, and you started to wonder whether there were any good guys to root for.

You certainly couldn’t really cheer for Frank Leo. Though he has an admirable goal of protecting his members, his character raises a whole host of questions that really need to be addressed. Like, why exactly is he still investigating crimes like he’s actually a cop? Union leadership doesn’t typically roam around on the street and kick in doors. I’m almost certain that they’re not allowed to carry firearms on raids or barge into hostage situations to act as negotiators (and I’m positive that a police union wouldn’t be paying random demands to kidnappers). As I said earlier, Frank kills at least two people with a gun, and is complicit in the shooting (we won’t quite call them murders, but that’s really what they are) in seven or eight more. He covers up two torture-murders to protect an alcoholic cop whose partner was himself killed. The extra-judicial policing Frank and his sidekick Tommy display is worrying, and it isn’t clear whether the producers intended for us to think about what this means. (Rather like the existence of Section 9 in “Ghost in the Shell,” the ability of agents of the state, or of non-state actors, to kill citizens without due process leads to some disconcerting questions about the structure of the society in which the series is set. But we’ve already established not-Toronto as part of another universe, so who knows.)

My suspicion is that we aren’t supposed to think too deeply about this dilemma. We live in facile times, where a majority of Americans think it’s a good idea to narrow the focus of Fifth Amendment protections for people who’ve been accused of being Scary Terrorists, and Jack Bauer runs around torturing people without reprisal on TV (and then has people take his actions as being the basis for foreign policy). It is possible to see “The Bridge” as the police version of “24”, where it doesn’t matter what the anointed Forces Of Good do, as long as it gets done to the plausibly bad guys.

The other characters are interesting, but also subtly not right. There’s the stock “retired cop who opens a cop bar where everyone goes to confess” guy called — and I swear I am not making this up — Rabbi, and he’s able to fix most of the problems with the guys on the street. (Rabbi’s bar actually has a few other big problems, most glaringly the presence of armed police in uniform drinking. Fuck, no wonder the department is all screwed up.) There’s the “cursed” character, Billy, who starts smoking crack to take the edge off (before getting hit with a shotgun blast during a — say it with me — routine traffic stop in the cliffhanger). There’s lawyer Abby St. James, played by Ona Grauer, who goes around with a look on her face like she can’t quite believe what she’s gotten herself into. She’s sleeping with Frank. Also sleeping with Frank is Alex’s partner Jill, who wears very tight clothes, used to be a lesbian, and seems to investigate crimes by crawling under police tape.

None of these people seem like particularly authentic police. I know the face of policing is changing, and it’s not all Frank Pembletons and Kay Howards and Vic Mackeys and Dani Sofers and Bunk Morelands and Jimmy McNultys — hell, I once watched a pair of (small, female) police trainees get literally swept off their feet by a guy in a Redman suit at the Academy in New West — but this is a diverse police force in more ways than one, inasmuch as they seem to have an affirmative action program for barking morons. Frank and Tommy have the TV police shtick down, but the rest look like, well, actors pretending to be police officers.

Oh, and about that lesbian thing: apparently not-Toronto’s department has something that looks a lot like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” only it just applies to gay guys. Gay women are fine; Jill wasn’t particularly evasive about her girlfriend in early episodes, but after they’ve broken up it’s suddenly a big deal that an undercover police was gay. Having gone to Frank for advice, the gay officer is told that his options are to stay in the closet, or quit. Even in Jesusland this doesn’t happen — I could buy a plot point of being ostracized by other guys in the department as a result of being gay, but official policy of firing gay police officers? In a universe where the AG wants to launch an investigation into the police department for corruption? Yeah, not so much.

“The Bridge” suffers from some of the same problems other Canadian police procedurals do — namely, the writers have no ear for police dialogue. Cops have a particular language, and a particular way of speaking, and even if all you’ve ever done is watch re-runs of “Dragnet,” you know this is true. Whether police-on-TV sound like police-in-the-real-world or not, there’s a particular way that police-on-TV are supposed to sound, and the cops in not-Toronto don’t sound like that. “Da Vinci’s Inquest,” for all of its virtues, was bad at this too — Mick Leary and Leo Shannon sounded like actual cops (or actual TV cops, as the case may be), and Dominick sounded like an actual coroner (but not like a TV coroner), but everyone else sounded like they were reading lines off a script written by someone who had never watched an episode of “Hawaii 5-0.” That’s sort of the same thing that happens in “The Bridge,” though in fairness I should probably point out that authentic police dialogue sounds a lot more like “The Wire” and is not appropriate for non-cable networks.

Canadian police shows also do terrible, terrible jobs with costuming, and “The Bridge” is no exception. The ballistic vests look like they’re made out of PVC, and are all external carriers. It’s… not a good look, guys.

Getting back to the earlier point about the moral message of the show, most police programs made in the last twenty years or so seem, at one point or another, to have a line to the effect of, “… and we would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for that pesky Constitution!” (Certainly “Law & Order” does this a lot.) In other words, the police and the state eventually bump up against constitutional protections for citizens. This isn’t a problem on “The Bridge,” for a couple of reasons: one, nobody is ever read their rights at arrest, and two, nobody ever goes to trial. (This is what happens when everyone just gets shot, instead.) There was an interesting 30 seconds where the Attorney General, trying to bully Frank, says something to the effect of, “Police officers can’t have citizens’ rights, because they’re police officers,” and I thought we were going to be treated to a discourse about the higher standard we have to have for our policing — but then Frank revealed the AG was in a restaurant surrounded by police, and the AG folded faster than Superman on washing day.

It’s perhaps a bit understandable to leave this constitutional piece out — we’re not sure, remember, whether “The Bridge” is supposed to be in Canada or not. (It’s too violent to be Canada, and too clean to be the United States.) So it makes sense that the producers would shy away from talking about actual constitutional protections that exist, and avoiding having to do the “you have the right to retain and instruct counsel” vs. “you have the right to remain silent” dance. Nevertheless, protections against self-incrimination exist in both countries, so why not talk about it, even obliquely? (Oh, right: because everyone gets shot before they have a chance to talk. Duh.)

I would feel better if I knew why this stuff was missing. If the intention was for not-Toronto to be portrayed as some kind of morality-free zone, I could probably find a way to deal with that (as I said, Jack Bauer lives in this universe and he’s doing just fine, thanks). In the absence of an implict understanding of the nature of this world, however, the lack familiar touchstones is disconcerting, and it leaves me feeling somewhat dirty at the end of an episode. Given the almost cartoonish nature of some of the characters, I have a hunch that the producers have created this world through inattention and laziness — that it came about by accident, rather than because they wanted a framework to explore complex issues.

Did I like the show? Not really. I watched it out of a sense of loyalty and a feeling of “jeez, what are they going to do this week?” Overall, like Lurr, I might give this a C-: ok, but not great. Maybe a D+, if I’m feeling nasty and unpleasant. It’s not a bad show, exactly, but it is a flawed one; whether you find the flaws as glaring as I do depends on whether you want your police procedurals based in something that resembles reality, and how suspended your disbelief can get. I won’t be sad if “The Bridge” doesn’t make it back on the schedule in the fall.

Sorry, Chief.