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‘The Bridge’: Crisis of Conscience

“Sometimes life tells you what it wants you to do,” Frank Leo (Aaron Douglas) hers from his father. And sometimes, TV scripts tell you something else. Frank’s a street cop. His dad, Vic (Stuart Margolin), is a cop too, the sort of cop who’s back on the job two weeks after a heart attack. Caught between admiring and resenting Vic, Frank follows his dad’s lead on their relationship. “We don’t talk about feelings,” he says. “I don’t know his.”

At the start of The Bridge, the latest CTV series picked up for the summer by CBS, Frank and his partner Tommy (Paul Popowich) are headed over the bridge that links and divides Toronto’s St. James Town projects from upscale Rosedale. The guys lay out the metaphor: “On this side here,” says Tommy, “You got the poor, lying and cheating and stealing to pay the rent, and over this little bridge we go, you got the rich, lying and cheating and stealing…” Frank completes the thought: “To collect the rent.”

So now you know: the show looks at simultaneous divides and connections, between haves and have-nots, cops and citizens. For the most part Frank embodies this idea, telling his mentor, Hector (Gerry Mendicino), “All I ever wanted was to be a cop,” which for him, for now, means protecting the citizenry. What you don’t know in these first few minutes will quickly become clear: as Frank’s life becomes increasingly complicated — amid rumors of cops’ corruption and evidence of management’s bullying — he takes on yet another bridge-like role, as union president.

It’s unusual, certainly, to position a workers’ union of any kind at the center of a network TV series. Even more unusual, under Frank’s leadership, the Police Protective Association, is honorable. “I’m cleaning up this department top to bottom,” he tells his chief, Ed Wycoff (Michael Murphy), during one of several conversations that might best be described as negotiations. Frank is adamant, and so is The Bridge: he’s the good cop. Everyone else is less good.

That doesn’t mean Frank doesn’t have to compromise, or that the show doesn’t contemplate degrees of morality, what’s possible, what’s persuasive, and what’s tempting. It does so in snatches of plot and brief scenes: aside from setting up basic geography concerning the bridge, the two-part premiere episode doesn’t spend a lot of time on character details or relationships. Everything in Frank’s life, for instance, has to do with the job: when he plays cards with he guys and with his dad, they talk about plot points. When he takes a moment to pursue a romantic entanglement with another cop, Jill (Inga Cadranel), she calls it off mid-grope, reminding him that she has a girlfriend, someone he remembers (“Yeah, I met her once, she’s really nice”). Another romance, from the past, comes back to haunt him via Internal Affairs (the most bad cops): they threaten her and send her in with a wire to make him say something untoward. (She serves a plot turn here, making Frank look even more righteous, but her abjection also looks contrived.)

Frank doesn’t always guess right as to whom to trust and how he’s being manipulated, but he maintains a straight-arrow approach to the troubles that seem to pile on by the minute once the higher ups decide to put him in his place. The corruption is pervasive and costly (more than one cop is found dead during this first episode), and each instance only makes Frank more determined to do right things, even if this means trading off for some wrongish things too, in pursuit of a greater good. The give and take show who’s trustworthy among the race and class hierarchies: Frank’s friendly interactions with the Punjabi gangster Mani (Shaun Shetty) suggest he understands street politics; his more strained meetings with Wycoff, in dark cars and parking garages rather than offices, demonstrate that neither trusts the other.

These untidy relationships mean that The Bridge is less a set of standalone episodes than an actual serial. Frank’s own plot involves ongoing investigations of his own, and for now, he seems to be steps ahead of his adversaries. It helps that he befriends the new prosecutor Abby St. James (Ona Grauer), and that she’s got a conscience. She first appears on TV, pressing a case against a couple of cops caught on video beating a suspect in a park. You’ve seen the entire, 90-second-or-so incident, so you know the tape the Police Board has released to news stations is selective and deliberately incriminating (the point is to damn the cops and make trouble for the union). The woman cop who looks extra-aggressive in the TV clip worries that her case “in public” is lost: “You know how those videos can get misunderstood.” Yes you do know, but the longer version still looks rough, even if it might vindicate her. It’s a matter of degrees, again.

On one hand, the lesson here is basic: cop work is hard. On another hand, the show makes an interesting if not-so-new point concerning the entanglements of the law and media, their effects on one another, and how they obscure experience as much as they might expose it. The Bridge can’t sort out this dilemma, only reflect it.

RATING 5 / 10