If you were into the weird, off-centre atmosphere of On Becoming A God In Central Florida earlier this year, or the folksiness of Fargo, noir crime dramedy Briarpatch, which is based on the 1984 Ross Thomas novel of the same name, serves up a similar brew of corruption and eccentricity.

In the story, high-powered Washington D.C.-based political aide Allegra Dill (Rosario Dawson) returns to her bizarre Texas hometown of San Bonifacio to find out who murdered her little sister, a detective, in a car bombing.

Her investigation turns into an all-out battle against the deep-rooted corruption in the town, which is like punching your fist into a wasp’s nest. Allegra is walking into a power struggle between her old friend, Jake Spivey (J R Ferguson), who’s now the richest man in town, and his psychotically vengeful ex-business partner, Clyde Brattle (Alan Cumming). They made their fortunes together as illegal arms dealers, and now thanks to a congressional investigation, Senator (Enrique Murciano) could make his career if he could just get one of them to turn on the other. A three-way battle between the town’s powers including drunkard mayor Antonio Salazar (Mel Rodriguez), cops represented by inept Captain Colder (Brian Geraghty) and Chief Eve Raytek (Kim Dickens) – who has a deliciously bizarre turn of phrase – and the press, represented by local reporter Freddie Laffter (John Aylward), is just making things messier in this barbecue of big egos, narcissism and incompetence.

But the seriousness of the situation gains some comic relief from the charming and bizarre small-town kooks that Allegra keeps running into in San Bonifacio – nicknamed “St. Disgrace” by the locals. “We wanted to set it in a fictional town, because I wanted it to be a place that’s not real, but feels true. It’s the kind of place that would exist in your imagination, a failing town that also has a robust newspaper with a morning and an afternoon edition. Sure! Why not?” jokes series creator Andy Greenwald (screenwriter for Legion). “My favourite show of all time is Twin Peaks, and that was as much about creating a fictional place that felt like it could be real as it was about a murder,” he adds. “I fell in love with the idea of a place that feels electric in your imagination, and West Texas feels completely alive to me as a place where fictional characters might exist and get into trouble.”

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That’s Miss Dill to you

One of Andy’s most important decisions in adapting the novel was to make the central character a woman instead of a man. It not only shook up the story, but challenged and exposed his own preconceptions about women “The story of a man returning to his hometown to deal with his demons is an overly familiar one,” he explains. “And what was exciting was – just by changing the gender of the lead – how it changed not only the story, but also my own relationship to the story. When I started adapting it, the first few pages were pretty verbatim from the book in a lot of ways. And as I was writing it, I caught myself wondering, 'Why isn't she more emotional about this news about her sister?' And then I realised, ‘Why do I expect her to be more emotional? Because she's a woman.’ I questioned my own biases while writing it, which made for a great exercise.”

Making Allegra a woman also shifted the kinds of obstacles that she’d be facing – ones that a male character wouldn’t have to contend with. “I'm also just more interested in stories with women in the lead and seeing what happens, again, both from a storytelling perspective and a sociological perspective. It changed relationships within the story. It added a whole extra layer to the Dill-Jake Spivey relationship [and] to the Dill-Senator relationship, certainly, as they existed in the book. But it also allowed me to just tell a different type of story about a different type of person and a relationship between sisters that I don't get to see very often,” says Andy.

Andy collaborated deeply with Rosario, who is a co-producer on the series along with executive producer Sam Esmail (creator of Mr. Robot), on creating Allegra. “I’ve never done anything like this. So often I’ve played the girlfriend or some storyline device kind of character, and not that main protagonist in this way. This woman has made some very clear choices about who she thinks she is and what her ambitions are, and to see it all kind of deconstruct and being able to explore that was very exciting, challenging and intriguing,” says Rosario.

Dressing Miss Dill

From the moment she struts on screen looking too cool to care in oversized sunglasses, a white jacket perched over her shoulders and white heels, it’s clear that Allegra Dill is a force to be reckoned with. But this won’t be a Lifetime Christmas fantasy about a city girl returning home to fall for a sweet Southern hometown boy. “She's not going back to try to fit in. She's going back as the woman she is now. This (her wardrobe) is an armour she slowly started to weld onto herself, and it's become a part of her,” says Rosario. “Bringing that D.C. (look) to this small border town shows that’s where her gumption lies, her audacity to show up in this way and trying to flex in that way, and seeing how it compromised her and really helped her sort of navigate the sea of men. Because it’s mostly men that she’s having to grapple with,” Rosario adds.

At no point is power dressing sweeter than when Rosario dons Allegra’s red Alice & Olivia pantsuit before taking on some of the town’s condescending old weasels. “I was so grateful to be in these suits as I'm dealing with men telling me over and over again who I am and what I'm about and what I know or what I don't know. It just felt so powerful,” says Rosario. “It wasn't that she can't leave the house without her lipstick on, it was about being prepared in any situation to present to people that she was capable and just as much of a boss as they were.” It’s worth the trade-off of having to sweat throughout the day in a suit jacket in the Texas-Mexico desert town.

Ana Lily Amirpour, who was brought in to direct the series pilot episode, insisted on the suits and worked with Briarpatch costume designer Risa Garcia (assistant costume designer for Big Little Lies, Sharp Objects and True Detective) to settle on the exact look for Allegra. “Obviously our brilliant costumer, Risa Garcia, gets a ton of credit for that. But it was Lily who said power suits. Bianca Jagger was the fashion icon that was in Lily's head, and she sold Rosario on it, she sold me on it. She was right. It was iconic instantly, and it was not at all what anyone was expecting. So, we're very indebted to her,” says Andy.

Giraffe for a laugh

The series’ most charming recurring characters are the real-life giraffes on set, and they’re just some of the animals running wild on set. “I remember when we were about to shoot that scene when we were doing the pilot, and somebody told me that we were going to have real giraffes. I thought they were just totally jerking my chain, and then I showed up and there were two giraffes there,” says JR Ferguson.

Rosario adds, “Every single time we would do the take where I would walk by the giraffe, it would lean its head down and kind of say hi to me, take after take, like we didn’t rehearse it. I didn’t have food, I wasn’t doing anything. My heart would flutter every time, those big eyes and those eyelashes; they’re just such remarkable creatures. And we had quite a few really amazing animal co-stars in this. Ana Lily was really pushing on that as well, that the animals be real animals. Because the place is so guttural, if you really feel the sweat and the heat and the place, to have it suddenly go to a fake animal – as amazing as special effects can be – it would really take you out of it. I think it was just really critical to beg the question, ‘Is it just that these are animals loose from the zoo, or are the animals loose everywhere? Like, are we really the animals?’ When you watch this, that’ll be an interesting question to ask.”

Production designer Richard Bloom reveals, “The same animal wranglers were on for the run of the show, and they require a very controlled set to get the performances from each animal. Throughout the season, we had a recurring zebra, a turtle and even some ants. On the pilot, we filmed the alligator and the giraffes and they were a real joy to watch. We didn’t film the tiger on the pilot. They were brought in at the very end of production. We actually had two tigers that specialised in different actions and they were both beautiful. The trainers locked down the stage and the tigers rehearsed for a week – first just getting used to the set and walking onto the stage and going through the hallway.” While there’s some serious debate about the ethics of using wild animals like tigers for entertainment, there’s no denying the impact of watching them on the prowl in Briarpatch. And we’ll be thinking hard about Rosario’s question throughout the show.

Watch Briarpatch S1 on Mondays on M-Net (DStv 101) at 22:00 or on Catch Up

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