teevee 2014
xmas 2014

the fifth annual karen sisco award

Four years ago, I started a new tradition. I called it the Karen Sisco Award, named after the short-lived television series starring Carla Gugino. Sisco was the character played by Jennifer Lopez in the film Out of Sight, and the series, which also featured Robert Forster and Bill Duke, was on ABC. They made ten episodes, showed seven, and cancelled it. Gugino was ridiculously hot (no surprise there) and the series, based on an Elmore Leonard character, got about as close as anyone did to Leonard’s style until Justified came along.

When I posted an R.I.P. to the show, my son commented, “Every year there is a new favorite Daddy-O show that gets cancelled mid-season. … You have some sort of fixation with doomed shows, did it start with Crime Story or does it come from your upbringing?” (In fairness, Crime Story lasted two seasons.) The Karen Sisco Award exists to honor those doomed shows.

Previous winners were Terriers (2010), Lights Out (2011), and Luck (2012). Last year, no series met the “rules”, so I instead spoke of the new/returning trend of mini-series, which begin with the idea of a limited run. I noted that mini-series are perfect for binge-watching, and here, I’ll note that the three previous winners of the Karen Sisco Award are also well worth your time.

I’m going to cheat again this year, but I’m not going to expand into genres. I’m picking a single series. It breaks the rules because it got through two seasons before being cancelled, not one. But many critics noted that the show became something different late in Season One, and thus I’m going to let this show sneak in on the basis of its best moments coming almost entirely in Season Two, which was the one that broke the network’s resolve and led to cancellation. I’m talking about FX’s The Bridge.

The Bridge was based on a Danish/Swedish series, with the locale changed from a bridge that crossed between Denmark and Sweden to the Bridge of the Americas that crosses between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. It sounds like a simple transition, aided by the casting of the blonde German actress Diane Kruger as the female lead … it’s not that she was a Dane or a Swede, but she seemed like someone who could have been cast in the original. The basic plot also seemed easy to translate: a body is found on the exact border of two countries; the body is severed in the middle, and it turns out it was put together from two different corpses, one from each of the border countries. Thus, the case involves police from both sides of the border.

A problem soon developed. The creators of the FX version had ideas for the direction the show should take, but there was a commitment to the plot line of the original. Until that narrative resolved itself, The Bridge was a mish-mash where the so-called main plot thread kept getting in the way of what was interesting: the developing relationship between the two detectives, and the depiction of the two border towns. The original narrative essentially resolved itself with two episodes to go in Season One, and fans of the series looked forward to a Season Two with a mind of its own at last.

The pilot episode had drawn just over 3 million viewers, but the series never even reached 2 million during the remainder of its run. The middle episodes of Season Two didn’t even get one million viewers, and the final two episodes barely squeaked over that marker, with 1.03 million. Three weeks later, FX cancelled the show.

The male lead was Demián Bichir, an excellent actor from Mexico who has gradually increased his presence in the U.S. (I knew him best from Weeds.) He and Kruger were the best reasons to watch The Bridge … Kruger had to play with her character’s unstated Asperger’s, and she managed to convey her emotional makeup even as she used it in her work as a detective. The way they warily came together reflected the hope that Mexico and the United States might come together, although The Bridge was always too dark to let that hope stand. One problem with the first season was that the general corruption always seemed deeper and more violent on the Mexican side of the border. Bichir, who has long been committed to improving representations of Mexicans and Latinos in Hollywood, noted that Juárez is much more than drugs and prostitutes, and that he wished The Bridge could show that. But he also felt that El Paso doesn’t come across any better, that it was a dark show, so maybe he didn’t agree with me about how Juárez seemed in that first season. The second season seemed, to my mind, to bring the two worlds closer together, and that corruption didn’t necessarily respect borders, but it’s been a few months and I may be misremembering.

One thing about Karen Sisco winners is that I don’t understand why they weren’t more popular. I can’t really say that about The Bridge, which was indeed dark, bilingual, often violent. It certainly didn’t lack for great acting, not just from the leads but also from Lyle Lovett, who had an oddball presence that fit his character, and Franka Potente, who is incapable of a bad performance but outdid herself here. The real revelation for me was Matthew Lillard, who was so perfectly cast as Shaggy in Scooby-Doo that I feared he’d be typecast for life. I needn’t have worried.

I don’t know what this means, but three of the four Karen Sisco winners were on FX. The network is clearly willing to try something different, although it is just as clear that they have an idea about who their audience is. They’ll ride a ratings winner like Sons of Anarchy long past its sell-by date. But without the ratings, nothing lasts … unlike HBO, ratings matter to FX. (HBO cancelled Luck for reasons not necessarily related to ratings.) It occurs to me that The Riches was also on FX, but it got a second season, and it wasn’t as good as the shows I’ve discussed here.

And so, with no further ado, I give the 2014 Karen Sisco Award to The Bridge.

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