This year, USA will air the final season of “Mr. Robot,” the show that launched creator Sam Esmail and that seemed, for a moment, to foretell a very different future for a network that had for years prior been best-known for its sunny, light dramas set in unconventional workplaces. Little in the show’s wake, though, has looked like it, at least on USA; its mélange of references, self-consciously brooding tone, and elaborate directorial choices shared more with fare on FX (“Fargo”) or HBO (“The Leftovers”) than, really, any of USA’s stable.
That changes with “Briarpatch,” a new drama debuting early next year after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival Sept. 7. The drama, a noirish literary adaptation executive produced by Esmail and former TV critic Andy Greenwald, seems like a middle way for USA, combining some of the visual and narrative excess of “Mr. Robot” with the clean lines and emphasis on memorable characters of, say, “Suits.” Anchored by a strong Rosario Dawson performance and flavored with wit and a real sense of place, “Briarpatch” is a charmer: It keeps those aspects of “Mr. Robot” that were most audience-friendly, and jettisons the rest — further proof, after last year’s Amazon series “Homecoming,” that Esmail is a talent capable of evolution and of growth.
On “Briarpatch,” Dawson’s Allegra, a high-level Senate staffer, returns to her hometown of San Bonifacio, Texas, known as “Saint Disgrace” among locals. She’s returning to investigate the killing of her sister, a local homicide detective, by car bomb, but comes at a moment of greater turmoil: For one thing, the animals have been freed from the local zoo by some force of chaos, and one of the first living creatures we meet in town is an unfortunate kangaroo who’s been struck by a car. (The stylish, but somehow not overwhelmingly so, pilot is directed by Ana Lily Amirpour.) It’s an inauspicious welcome to town that seems in retrospect to have accurately portend more and more drama; Allegra dodges both real and compelling danger and locals whose designs on her seem ambiguous at moments. Among those Allegra encounters, in the first two installments, are Brian Geraghy as a cop whose relationship with Allegra’s sister was utterly unknown to Allegra herself, Edi Gathegi as a good-hearted fellow who tries to communicate warnings to Allegra in broken French, Kim Dickens as a maternal local cop, and Jay R. Ferguson as a local tycoon with a fondness for cocaine and for keeping giraffes. (Characters played by Alan Cumming and Ed Asner appear in episodes down the line.)
Ferguson’s character shares an intriguing chemistry with Allegra, fueled both by their mutual history and their present situation: He’s at the center of a conspiracy that her boss, a less-than-upright U.S. Senator, has asked her to involve herself in while she’s back home. This thread of the story, in the two episodes screened in Toronto, is less obviously gripping than the investigation of what happened to Allegra’s sister — it’s chewier, harder to parse — but Ferguson, so great previously on “Mad Men,” buoys it. So, too, does Dawson, who hasn’t had a showcase like this on TV: Her work across Marvel’s Netflix shows allowed her to show off similar grit, but on “Briarpatch’s” vaster canvas, Allegra’s complications flourish: We knew Dawson could be tough, but learn now that she can mourn a sister with whom she had a complicated relationship, or can find herself entangled in an affair despite her better judgment, or can think through a mystery onscreen. Onscreen contemplation is hard to sell; when Allegra toys with a cigarette, which she flips and sniffs without ever lighting, one actually sees her mind at work.
The human factor Dawson provides helps keep “Briarpatch” from being a pure style exercise, as has been “Mr. Robot” in moments. (That show’s lead performance, by Rami Malek, is meant to be isolating and remote; it succeeds terrifically.) Dawson is hardly warm in the role — she’s interacting, generally, with either people she suspects of wrongdoing or people from whom she requests information — but she is refreshing and real, creating a character with contours that bring Allegra off the page. The town Allegra’s stuck in may be suffused with quirk, but she grounds every bit of the world around her in refreshing reality.
That ends up making “Briarpatch” a show worth looking forward to avidly, one that has the potential to, once again, establish USA as a place for serious fare. USA’s plan is to treat “Briarpatch” as an anthology, and to create subsequent seasons focusing on new characters within its creative world. Based on their success with Allegra, it’s easy to imagine that’s doable; for now, though, the time we have with this well-wrought, sharply observant but fallible sleuth is reward enough.
“Briarpatch.” USA. Early 2020. Ten episodes (two screened for review).
Cast: Rosario Dawson, Jay R. Ferguson, Brian Geraghty, Edi Gathegi, Kim Dickens, Alan Cumming, Ed Asner
Executive Producers: Andy Greenwald, Sam Esmail, Chad Hamilton, Ana Lily Amirpour