Her name is virtually unknown to most of us: Alma Chavira Farel. When her dead body was found Jan. 23, 1993, she’d been beaten, raped and strangled.
She was, in most tellings, the first known victim in one of the most gruesome and, in many ways, weirdly overlooked news stories of the past 20 years – the murders of at least 370 young women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a city of 2 million across the bridge from relatively peaceful El Paso, Texas, which is sometimes thought to be the most violent city in the world.
So many of the female victims conform to type: young, slender, black-haired. They often are students or factory workers in sweatshops known as maquiladoras. Their breasts are often slashed.
“60 Minutes” did a report on them. In general, though, both television drama and news have avoided the story. For a story with such a huge “body count,” it might seem unfathomable except that the quantity of victims itself makes it completely unwieldy.
But the story is a complex one – far more than the serial killing tales which, astonishingly, television keeps supplying with bewildering regularity.
A part of the great Roberto Bolano’s novel “2666” refers to the female murder victims of Juarez but it is, quite simply, not a part of the general information that most people carry around.
One George Zimmerman trial trumps all of it.
Or will, that is, until Wednesday when a new 10 p.m. FX series will bring the extraordinary violence of Ciudad Juarez to a highly visible place on a well-trafficked perimeter of cable television.
The new show is called “The Bridge.” I’ve seen the first three, and it’s superb. It is also, somewhat incredibly, almost the sister show of one of the darkest and best shows on current television, AMC’s Sunday night show “The Killing.”
Both are based on Scandinavian TV series. In the case of “The Bridge,” the original is Danish/Swedish and was about the Danish/Swedish border.
Most important of all, by far, is this: The American developers of both series are not only themselves women (still not a commonplace in contemporary television, unfortunately) but they had an important working creative relationship on one of the most praised series of its ilk, CBS’ “Cold Case.”
The creator and show-runner – the TV equivalent of a movie producer – of “Cold Case” was Meredith Stiehm, who is the developer and show-runner of “The Bridge.” The developer and show-runner of “The Killing” is Veena Sud, whose major prominence before ultra-dark and rainy “The Killing” came along when she was a writer and executive producer on “Cold Case.”
You don’t have to be all that observant to see how very many of the darkest series on contemporary television – some of the most currently prominent in what people call TV noir – have female show-runners.
The creator and show-runner of Showtime’s excellent and ultra-tough new “Ray Donovan” is Ann Biderman. The show-runner of “Criminal Minds” for the past two years has been Erica Messer.
The mere fact of serial killing as the focus of a TV show doesn’t necessarily qualify it as TV noir. “Dexter” – who was everyone’s favorite serial killer of other serial killers until he started slicing up citizens – is far too operatic to be TV noir, especially when Jennifer Carpenter is going through one of her aria-like four-letter tirades.
In both “The Killing” and now “The Bridge,” we are dealing with investigative partners featuring a woman whose intensity of focus tends to disturb everyone else around them except their male partners.
The focus of “The Bridge” is the partnership of El Paso homicide cop Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” who resembles Demi Moore) and Marco Ruiz of the Chihuahua State Police (Demian Bechir, an Oscar nominee for “A Better Life.”)
They come together when a woman’s body is found smack in the middle of the Bridge of the Americas joining the two cities. It belongs to a judge of notably anti-immigration views – or so they think until they try to move her and discover the body is in two perfectly bisected pieces.
Soon after, they realize that the upper half – the judge – doesn’t begin to match the lower half. “White arms, brown legs,” says Sonya. In other words, the lower half is either Mexican or Mexican-American.
As involving as the gruesome case becomes (complications include a tequila-swilling, coke-sniffing reporter trapped in a car about to explode), the show’s true focus is on the relationship of the American and Mexican cops who are diametrically opposite.
She has Asperger’s syndrome – something I only know from reading FX’s publicity, however obvious are some of its symptoms throughout the first three episodes. Her cop superior (Ted Levine, formerly of “Monk”) has to constantly remind her to make “eye contact” with people she’s interrogating. She has even less diplomacy than she has empathy.
When questioning the judge’s grief-stricken husband, she asks about his slaughtered wife, “Any affairs? Drugs?”
“She was a mother, for Christ’s sake,” he says.
“My mother used drugs,” she answers blandly.
He also has to remind her to go into the ladies room to change her overripe blouse rather than do it in the office in front of him.
Her way of getting picked up in a bar is to frostily rebuff a genial male suitor’s offer to buy her a drink. Instead, she follows him back to his spot at the bar, berates him for leaving her and asks, “Wanna have sex with me?”
Her Chihuahua opposite – there’s going to be an international task force – is the epitome of worldly wisdom who has somewhat miraculously maintained integrity despite the pervasive corruption caused by Juarez’s drug cartels.
He has three children and a pregnant wife despite his recent and decidedly uncomfortable vasectomy. (“It was time,” he admits). The 250 missing kids from Juarez – mostly young dark-haired women between 15 and 25 – are “too many,” he says. “The chiefs don’t really want us to investigate. It’s easier that way.”
In his world, the cartel’s message to the cops is “take our silver (money) or take our lead (bullets.)”
He takes neither. And survives anyway.
“The Bridge” is ultra-tough TV indeed – as tough in its way as “Breaking Bad” or “The Wire.” It’s tougher really than “The Killing” which, for all its Seattle rainfall and color that is so de-saturated that the show is virtually in black and white a lot of the time, is really a show constantly centered on the surprises that empathy and compassion bring.
Once “The Bridge’s” killer starts communicating with the cops, he tends to make demands of El Paso’s wealthier citizens and lectures the cops pointedly about “dialectics.”
This is even more high-level TV noir for a new century. You can bet your next margarita that it knows how much it’s related to one of the greatest of all films noirs – Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” about the baroque border corruption on both sides of Tijuana.
But it’s that sisterhood relationship with the already rich noir series “The Killing” and cousin-hood with Showtime’s masterful “Homeland” (where Stiehm was also a writer and executive producer) that is giving us a whole new species of TV antiheroines to join the antiheroes we’ve had for a while: deeply flawed women whose very excellence at what they do engenders little for them but pain and awkwardness.
A superb new show, then, is on its way to you Wednesday.