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The U.S.-Mexico border plays a starring role in the new FX series The Bridge.
Characters in the television crime drama, which premieres Wednesday night, regularly cross back and forth through the border between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The show's dialogue also frequently switches between English and Spanish, setting a new standard for bilingual drama on American television.
The story unfolds on the Bridge of the Americas, where a woman's body left on the border (literally) brings together two police detectives — one from the U.S. (played by Diane Kruger) and the other from Mexico (played by Demián Bichir).
"The woman [on the bridge] appears to be an American judge," explains the show's executive producer, Elwood Reid.
But then it gets gross. (That's a warning for those of you who are faint of stomach.) When the law enforcement agents attempt to pull the body away, the body separates into two.
"The lower half of the body are the legs of a 16-year-old prostitute from Juárez, and the upper half of the body happens to be an anti-immigration judge from Texas," Reid says.
Sounds pretty gruesome, right? Like some premise straight out of a Scandinavian crime novel?
Well, that's kind of close.
Keeping It Real
The Bridge is actually a remake of a Scandinavian TV series. The American version is produced by the Shine Group, which originally planned to set the remake along the U.S.-Canada border, according to Reid.
"[They thought,] 'Hey! It's a Danish-Swedish program. It should be set up in somewhere cold and northern in the U.S.' And I was just sort of seduced by this idea of Mexico," he says.
One problem: Reid, who calls himself an "average white guy from Cleveland," is not an expert on the U.S.-Mexico border. Plus, he doesn't speak much Spanish.
So, after he and his co-executive producer Meredith Stiehm wrote a few episodes in English, they recruited a Spanish-speaking director (Gerardo Naranjo of Miss Bala) and actors from Mexico, including Oscar nominee Demián Bichir.
As Mexican detective Marco Ruiz, Bichir slides in and out of English and Spanish as he and his American counterpart track down a serial killer, who is leaving a trail of victims on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Most scenes with Bichir and his character's colleagues and family in Mexico are completely in Spanish with English subtitles. "A great deal of the series happens in Ciudad Juárez, so that's how we try to keep it real," Bichir explains.
That level of linguistic authenticity is unusual on English-language TV networks in the US. But it's a goal that Reid says he and his creative team take seriously when they shoot scenes in Mexican Spanish, which are usually written first in English.
"I'm constantly corrected and humbled on set by our cast," Reid says. "The [Spanish-speaking] guy hanging our lights will basically tell me, 'That's wrong! You're using the wrong word there!' "
Cable's Bridge To A Latino Audience?
Using the right words has been important for The Bridge not just on the set but also for the show's marketing. The FX Network has been actively courting a Latino audience for the show with Spanish-language ads and press conferences. There are also plans to rebroadcast episodes completely dubbed in Spanish on MundoFox.
Bichir hopes the series will attract a wide audience. But he admits those more familiar with the realities of living on the U.S.-Mexico border — both positive and negative — may find the show's depiction to be a little one-sided.
"There will be some scenes where production decides to be a little rough on the way we show certain sides of Mexico," Bichir says. "I think it's important that people know that this is not a documentary. This is fiction, and we're telling a story."
It's a story in English and in Spanish that Elwood Reid says is an attempt by a premium cable channel to reach out to an audience underserved by American television.
"You know, there's not a Sopranos for Spanish speakers. There's not a Mad Men," he says. "But we're reaching out to that audience and saying, 'Come over here and look at what premium cable has to offer. We're telling stories about things that matter to you.' And I think language is a huge part of that."
But can language help make this border crime drama a hit?
Audiences will decide when The Bridge premieres Wednesday night on FX.