Solving Grisly Crime Right Smack Dab on the Border

'Keep the Americans out of our business -- understand?" the captain of the Chihuahua State Police (Juan Carlos Cantu) orders his detective (Weeds' Demian Bichir).

That command proves to be quite a challenge in The Bridge, a gripping new series from FX.

When a corpse is placed precisely and conspicuously on the border demarcation between Juarez and El Paso, it sparks an uneasy collaboration between investigators in Mexico and the United States. The case brings the social, cultural, and law enforcement variances between the neighboring countries into stark relief.

For the El Paso cop (Diane Kruger of Inglourious Basterds), it's all black and white. Bossy, intemperate, and completely lacking in people skills, she goes at everything head-on. This detective doesn't observe boundaries of any kind.

Her Mexican counterpart is no less devoted to justice, but he's comfortable with obstacles and compromise. He performs his duties, after all, in an environment dominated by the boundless brutality of the drug cartels.

When Kruger reflexively asserts jurisdiction, Bichir says, "I don't need your body. Just this morning I got nine heads in the parking lot at City Hall."

Bichir, nominated for an Oscar for his poignant performance in A Better Life, is, as always, excellent. Kruger is the surprise here, giving a Natalie Portman-caliber portrayal of a woman with autistic tendencies.

Wait until you see the seduction style she uses on a guy in a honky-tonk.

The cast of The Bridge (Wednesday, 10 p.m.) is stellar beyond the leads. Ted Levine (Monk) is Kruger's endlessly patient, Stetson-ed boss. Matthew Lillard (The Descendants) is a druggy reporter, cynically spinning his wheels in El Paso. And the protean Lee Garlington plays his seen-it-all editor.

Annabeth Gish (Brotherhood) plays the recently widowed owner of a horse-breeding spread on the border, and singer Lyle Lovett turns up as a spindly, sinister lawyer.

The darker characters are indelible, too, including Arturo Del Puerto as a zealous killer and Thomas M. Wright (Top of the Lake) as a disturbed social worker. The Aussie actor is so convincing as a mesquite-smoked American, you may think he's channeling Levon Helm of the Band.

The best part of The Bridge may be its music, particularly the deeply haunting theme song, "Until I'm One With You," which Ryan Bingham wrote and recorded for the series.

(Bingham won an Academy Award for "The Weary Kind," a song he cowrote with T Bone Burnett for the film Crazy Heart. In the movie, "The Weary Kind" was the winsome hit that broken-down songwriter Jeff Bridges ultimately sold to rising country star Colin Farrell.)

Considering how steeped in Mex-Tex flavor The Bridge is, it's surprising to learn that its concept travels lightly. It's based on a Scandinavian series, Bron, in which Swedish and Danish police work the same murder. And the American adaptation was originally set on the Canadian border near Niagara Falls.

You should be aware that this is not breezy summer entertainment. The Bridge is a very dark show, both literally (everything seems to happen at night) and figuratively (morality quickly grows murky).

It's artfully directed, but intensely grisly. And its atmosphere is far more coherent than its sometimes sketchy narrative. But it does string you along. With barbed wire.

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