Briarpatch From Page to Screen

Ross Thomas published his southwestern detective novel Briarpatch in 1984. His protagonist, Benjamin “Pickle” Dill (kids stopped calling him “Pickle” in the 4th grade after he beat up a bunch of them) returns to his New Mexico hometown to investigate the murder of his younger sister, homicide cop Felicity Dill, in a car bombing. Dill works for a clandestine Senatorial subcommittee chaired by a young, ambitious senator from Dill’s home state. Dill is a very good investigator, and the book implies he learned some extra-curricular skills working for the government in Europe and Southeast Asia.

The story of his cop sister’s life and death makes no sense, and soon puts Dill in contact with his childhood friend Jake Spivey and an elusive arms dealer named Clyde Brattle. Dill is shortly reacquainted with the power politics, corruption and discrimination that fill his old home town.

Executive Producer Rosario Dawson picked up Briarpatch as a star-project, updated it, and engaged in some judicious gender and race swapping, in a ten-episode series on USA. USA partnered with AMC.

Changing the ethnicity of characters can be tricky (and often lead to pathetic failures) but for the most part it works here just fine. The biggest switch (other than the MC herself, played by Dawson and called Allegra Dill) is the lawyer Anne Marie Singe. In Ross’s book, Singe was basically there to provide needed exposition and become Benjamin’s Dill’s sex partner. This character, now a Black man called A.D. Singe played by Edi Gathegi, functions in a very different way as he… provides needed exposition and becomes Allegra’s sex partner. Okay, so… not so different. It seemed different because Dawson and Gatheri had awesome chemistry together.

TV Briarpatch adds characters, like the chief of police Eve Raytek, and throws in some B-plotline complications, like an immigration trafficking storyline, oh, and changes the state to Texas. As another review I read noted, the television version tries hard for Texas Weird ( the review said it’s part “Twin Peaks in Texas”) most obviously with the premise in the first episode that an eco-terrorist released all the animal in the zoo, so various animals wander in and out of scenes… including, in the most Twin-Peaks-like and least plausible example, the tiger that roams the hallway that Allegra’s hotel room is on. Believable? No. Cool-looking? Yes.

Dawson, as the cool and detached Dill, is arresting in this role, but the two outstanding characters are Jake Spivey, played to weird perfection by Jay R. Ferguson, and the fey, strange and deadly Clyde Brattle, embodied flawlessly by Alan Cumming.

I thought we were supposed to assume something from Dill’s emotional detachment; deep psychological trauma, for example. Then I read the book, and saw that Dawson is playing Dill exactly as Ross wrote Dill. Apparently, nearly psychotic emotional detachment seemed normal for 1984 male MCs. Either that, or I still have gender biases. Whatever it is, it works the way Dawson does it. The one flourish I found unnecessary was the mild SM relationship with the handsome ambitious senator. Please! We get that Dill is in a position with no power. We get that she can only slap the Senator as foreplay, because he has all the power. We get it.

Updating was disheartening easy, really; black ops in Viet Nam easily translated to black ops in Afghanistan; political corruption is still political corruption, and shady land deals are always good drama. The way Dill and Felicity Dill communicated was awkward, because in the book, the younger sister wrote letters. In 2020, explaining why she uses this instead of email doesn’t quite work. Some of these episodes were quite slow. I think this story would have worked well in eight, rather than ten episodes.

I watched them all, but I’m still not sure I liked it. It isn’t something I will watch again, probably, but there were some interesting details. I think as a showcase for Dawson, it worked quite well. And, bonus, there were giraffes.

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