AppleTV+’s comedy-noir-recovery drama achieves uneven success thanks to its star.
Television has entered a new era of the citizen detective. If the boys of Only Murders In the Building are Jessica Fletcher for the 2020s and Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie of Poker Face is today’s Columbo, High Desert’s Peggy (Patricia Arquette) is the inheritor of the con artist crime fighter mantel. Think those “Characters Welcome” staples Psych or White Collar. Then trade the charismatic 30-something man running a scam for a charismatic middle-aged woman looking for an angle and maybe some pills.
A brief flashback shows life before Peggy’s husband Denny’s (Matt Dillon) bust for being an especially prolific drug dealer. Family and friends all around, laughter, an operational in-ground pool, and so on. Then High Desert drops us into her current reality. Her mother (Bernadette Peters) has died and her relationship with her sister Dianne (Christine Taylor) is strained at best. Plus, with Denny locked up, she’s working in a Wild West tourist trap as a gunslinging showgirl.
But Peggy’s observant. She doesn’t always make the best choices but can quickly clock a situation. That leads her to the employ of a hard-luck PI turned eBay salesman Bruce (Brad Garrett). And it pushes her into what may be the case that changes both of their lives involving a local newsman turned low-rent cult leader, Guru Bob (Rupert Friend), and several long-lost works of art.
If that description sounds a bit all over the place, well, the series proves even more ramshackle in execution. By the end of High Desert, in fact, much of the storylines it introduces end up abandoned, dismissively settled, or frustratingly unresolved. This is one of those shows where neither the journey nor the destination is the point. Instead, it’s a character study given over entirely to the beaten but not broken Peggy.
Arquette, so good in Severance and Boyhood, hasn’t been placed this front and center since the network supernatural procedural Medium. Suffice it to say that series demanded a different set of skills and gave her a far smaller space to play in. Here, there is a looseness to the plotting and stagey. While almost certainly not predominantly improv-ed, High Desert gives the sensation of being ready to jump and move depending on Arquette’s whims. As a result, it can sometimes feel galling in its shapelessness. However, more often than not, the actor holds the center, giving the often silly story a wounded, rebellious heart.
[Patricia] Arquette proves enough of a force of nature that the structural frustrations and pictorial disappointments only dent, never derail.
Dillon, Friend, and Garrett are willing and able accomplices in her scene-stealing. Weruche Opia as Peggy’s best friend Carol also proves an excellent springboard for Arquette. One feels like Taylor could be as well, but the show gives us too little of her and too often reduces her to little more than expressing outrage. Her one standout scene–with Peters, who also plays a lookalike of the sisters’ mother–is great. It’s a shame they didn’t give her more to do. Her husband, Stewart (Keir O’Donnell), gets to have more fun in a smaller, thinner role.
Even director Jay Roach seems to get this is Arquette’s show and gets out of the way. High Desert never looks bad, certainly. However, it is largely devoid of stylistic flair. Given all the genres the show plays in, from noir to slapstick to family drama, one often wants for choices that take a chance. Again, Roach isn’t turning in subpar work here. It’s more that the series all over the place nature would seem to provide a large array of visual options that mostly go untapped.
Arquette proves enough of a force of nature that the structural frustrations and pictorial disappointments only dent, never derail, High Desert. Tune in to see an actor who’s gone too long without a spotlight to herself remind everyone exactly what she can do with it.
High Desert currently has some art it would love to show you on AppleTV+.