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Tuesday, April 16th, 2024  

High Desert

Apple TV+, May 17, 2023

May 15, 2023 Photography by Apple TV+ Web Exclusive
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To call Peggy Newman a pistol would be an understatement. In the Apple TV+ dramedy High Desert’s premiere episode, Peggy not only wields peashooters, but also swings heroically from a saloon chandelier, before leading a song and dance number. That erratic behavior is part of recovering addict and somewhat reformed drug dealer Peggy’s attempt to turn over a new leaf at her job at an Old West theme park. Peggy (Patricia Arquette) is trying to impress her siblings Dianne (Christine Taylor) and Stewart (Keir O’Donnell) with both her hijinks and the gig’s legitimate steady paycheck. But they aren’t having it. Her brother and sister have been exasperated with Peggy ever since she was busted at her lavish California home for trafficking numerous bricks of weed and hash. This scene depicted in an impressive episode one cold open tracking shot that revels in the house’s opulence and Peggy holding court with relatives, before a SWAT team knocks down the door.

Peggy has been a dysfunctional mess ever since, but in order to better support herself and prevent her siblings from kicking her out of their mother’s fancy home so they can sell it, Peggy decides she needs a new income stream. While day drinking with her pal Carol (a mellow and charismatic Reanne Weruche Opia), Peggy sees an ad in which a private investigator (Brad Garrett of Everybody Loves Raymond fame) is promoting his services. She visits the misanthropic gumshoe and finagles an internship. Then she’s off, investigating who stole money from her theme park day job, the shady fine art dealings of her colleague’s ex-boyfriend (Rupert Friend) and more. She takes breaks to pop pain pills, go on acid trips, feud with her siblings and crash her car.

If all that sounds convoluted in print, imagine trying to watch this show. Plenty of things keep happening on High Desert, but it’s often hard to understand why. Peggy beefs bitterly with her colleague who insists her sleazy art dealer boyfriend will pay for her boob job. When newly minted P.I. Peggy Newman deduces her colleague paid for the surgery herself to keep him from dumping her, she offers to help and confronts him, despite she and that coworker hating each other in every preceding scene. It seems their character development doesn’t matter, because the plot dictates Peggy needs to get closer to the art dealer to dive into the world of counterfeits.

Peggy’s motivation to become a P.I. in the first place is also murky. The show never dwells on that, however, instead barreling forward just like its protagonist. Nearly every sentence of dialogue is speedily spat out, and the actors strain to make it work, but the result is instead always grating and desperate for humor that isn’t there. That’s strange because the writer-creators have good track records— Nancy Fichman on Nurse Jackie (another ode to a female addict), Katie Ford on Miss Congeniality, and Jennifer Hoppe-House on Grace and Frankie, Get Shorty, Damages, and also Nurse Jackie.

There’s plenty of talent on and behind the camera here. The writers are clearly aiming for a deliberate fast-paced screwball tone. But I didn’t laugh once. The endlessly talented Garrett yells at his computer in one scene and it’s meant for yuks, but instead comes off lazily written because there’s no wit in his lines, just blunt force shouting. Peggy spots a flower blooming on a desert cactus in another of the three episodes given to critics set to drop for the public on May 17. Poor Arquette has an extended monologue with the flower and gives it her all. But the on the nose metaphor between it and her character, and the preening and blustery tone that the writers and director Jay Roach (the Austin Powers film series, Meet the Parents) make Arquette’s efforts fall flat in not only this scene, but nearly every other. Roach’s tonal missteps are all the more baffling because he frames and shoots each scene with breathtaking beauty. Characters’ reflections are visible in windows in pristinely framed scenes, and Peggy’s slow motion drug montages convey her inebriation.

Underrated character actor (and former heartthrob) Matt Dillon is high on the call sheet but only appears briefly in the first two episodes as Peggy’s convicted ex-husband. He factors bigger in a cliffhanger at the end of episode three designed to keep audiences hooked until the next episode drops the following week. He brings a menacing charm to his scenes that is refreshingly grounded compared to the otherwise off the wall writing and performances that make the first three episodes unfunny and often incoherent. But he’s unlikely to salvage the rest of the series, given the heft of the talent behind the first three episodes that flounder. Indeed, High Desert is barren of laughs, and its tone is as abrasive as a dusty California valley cactus. (www.tv.apple.com/us/show/high-desert)

Author rating: 3/10

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Average reader rating: 7/10


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