Subplots thicken for FX’s ‘The Bridge’ in Season 2

Hank Stuever (c) 2014, The Washington Post.

Most cable dramas expect us to stay sharp during the 10 or so months it takes for them to come back around with another season. Viewers have learned various tricks to jog our memories of where difficult characters and complicated plots were left hanging. It’s a good thing the Internet is flush with recaps and Wiki-style summaries to fill in the blanks.

Never is this interregnum more dire than in the space between seasons 1 and 2 of an ambitious series that is still trying to find its way. That holds especially true for FX’s bordertown crime drama “The Bridge,” which concluded last year with an ambivalent sigh and returns Wednesday night with a far broader scope. If you were hoping for a fresh start and a leaner premise, forget it. “The Bridge” clearly intends to heap more work on us, not less.

When last we left it, much about “The Bridge” was laudable — especially two fine performances from Demian Bichir and Diane Kruger as detectives investigating a murder from opposite sides of the U.S./Mexico border crossing at El Paso, Texas. The story strayed in the middle of the season and chose some tedious detours. As it drew to a climax, Bichir’s character, Marco Ruiz, was dealt a terrible personal blow. The net result of Season 1 seemed as dry and heartless as the desert surroundings.

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Adapting a successful Danish/Swedish series called “Bron/Broen” into “The Bridge,” showrunner Elwood Reid and executive producer Meredith Stiehm rather artfully transplanted a Euro-noir procedural to the grit and grief of the American Southwest. For once, the context and setting of a violent drama — Ciudad Juarez and its drug wars, murder rate and disappearances — more closely matches some actual statistics. New York could never (one hopes) gin up as much violent crime as it experiences in TV’s overactive imagination. Juarez, on the other hand . . .

A year later, it’s difficult to remember the show’s many other entanglements, and good luck trying to keep up as Season 2 takes off in the dust. The main thread involves the murder of a cartel member whose body is found on the Texas side of the equation. Once more, El Paso detective Sonya Cross (Kruger) is asked to cooperate with Ruiz and see what they can figure out.

But it’s clear that the writers consider the Sonya/Marco dynamic to be the least of it now; no fewer than four other plots are being pursued. Let me attempt to summarize:

Two newspaper reporters, Daniel and Adriana (Matthew Lillard and Emily Rios) are hunting for clues to a money-laundering operation in the Juarez/El Paso underworld, but there’s also a subplot having to do with Adriana’s missing sister. Then there’s a subplot involving a well-guarded ranch that protects women (one woman in particular) hiding from the cartel. Also (we’ve only just begun), Franka Potente joins the cast as a psychopathic Mennonite killer who does dirty work for the cartel, as well as dirty work of her own. And, bafflingly, “The Bridge” retains a subplot from last season in which a wealthy widow (Annabeth Gish) is embroiled in a drug-tunnel smuggling operation; Lyle Lovett occasionally lends a menacing presence as her mysterious lawyer.

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Too all this we are asked to remain interested in the back story of Sonya’s off-putting social disorder that has made her permanently brusque. To the disapproval of her protective boss, Lt. Hank Wade (Ted Levine), Sonya is having a sex-only affair with a man whose brother murdered her sister years ago. And don’t forget that Marco is still dealing with his considerable grief and sinking deeper into the corruption that controls the Chihuahua State Police.

What you have here is a show with a “Wire”-sized envy for epic sprawl and a “Breaking Bad”-like wish to sublimely portray repeat acts of evil. Remarkably, the writers find a slow-moving current by episodes 3 and 4, enough to capture the interest of only the most dedicated “Bridge” viewers and perhaps keep us moving through the season.

A few problems nevertheless persist — mostly having to do with a music-video sense of surroundings (sad guitar twangs; tires on gravel roads; a nuevo-wavo, souvenir-shop idealizing of the creepy West) and a level of violence and gore that is right in line with other bloody cable dramas but often seems unnecessary and relentless. Sometimes it’s fun to get utterly lost in a drama like this; sometimes it’s better to turn around and keep driving.

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As a young, evangelical filmmaker from a private Christian college, Kate Logan traveled to the Dominican Republic several years ago and found what she thought would be an inspiring story about a faith-based boarding school that had been helping troubled American teens for three decades.

The school, then called Escuela Caribe, remarkably gave Logan permission to film for several weeks, allowing her to observe and interview students who were immersed in a heavily structured, highly disciplined life of class, chores, punishment and prayer.

In her eventual and excellent documentary, “Kidnapped for Christ” (airing Thursday on Showtime), it isn’t long before Logan becomes disturbed by what she’s seeing.

Expecting to hear extreme examples of delinquency in the students’ backgrounds, she instead learns that one girl is there because her chronic panic attacks were interfering with her school work. A young man, David, was an honors student in Colorado. He tells Logan that he was whisked away in the dark of night, sent to Escuela Caribe by his parents because he had just come out to them as gay. Contact with his friends and teachers back home was cut off immediately.

There are, Logan learns, hundreds of similar boarding schools in the United States and abroad, many of them faith-based, operating outside any regulations or oversight. At Escuela Caribe, where tuition ran as much as $72,000 a year when she began filming, Logan discovers something akin to a prison culture with a smiley face on it, replete with a solitary confinement house, corporal punishment and allegations of abuse.

Logan bravely agrees to secretly relay a message from David to his friends, which triggers an escape plan and a fascinating sequence of events that explains why the film took so long to complete. In the face of outrage, Logan remains calm, collected and open-minded. “Kidnapped for Christ” is an absorbing example of knowing when, as an observer, to get involved in the story.

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“The Bridge” (one hour) returns Wednesday on FX. “Kidnapped for Christ” (90 minutes) airs Thursday on Showtime, with encores. Check local listings for specific times.