It’s pitched somewhere between Miss Congeniality and Erin Brockovich but, despite Patricia Arquette’s best efforts, High Desert lands neither a joke nor an emotional punch.
It is a disappointment, considering it comes with a script from experienced writers Katie Ford, Nancy Fichman, and Jennifer Hoppe - the latter pair who had previously contributed to Grace and Frankie, the television adaption of Get Shorty, and Nurse Jackie. While an experienced line-up, it is the first time they have created a show and it is a promising set-up.
Arquette plays Peggy, a not-quite-yet-clean addict recovering from the death of her mother as she works and steals her way through a hand-to-mouth existence. Peggy, whose husband (an underused Matt Dillon) is in jail, works as an actress at a struggling western saloon theme park (that’s both eerie and eerily similar to one in the 2022 film Nope).
It’s not only the creditors and law enforcers who are circling, but her own squeaky-clean brother and sister (the latter credibly played by Christine Taylor) – their exasperating relationship with the black sheep elder sibling is about as real as the show gets.
Falling on one hard time too many, Peggy’s eureka moment is seeing an ad offering the chance to become a private investigator. It’s unclear whether the writers researched by purely watching The Peter Serafinowicz Show, but Brad Garrett as PI Bruce and his tin pot organisation could double for the deliberately inept Brian Butterfield Detective Agency.
Perhaps Yucca Valley, California has more than its fair share of village idiots, but the comic stupidity of the bad guys is enough for the darker and more tender moments to lose credibility. Rupert Friend’s Guru Bob is a walking manifestation of a yoga-practising stereotype while his jealous and bleating girlfriend, Susan Park as Tammy, doesn’t do much for the image of aspiring actresses.
There is a missed opportunity for Peggy to strike up any kind of witty banter with Bruce beyond a repeated gag where she gives the small print of any transaction as she walks out of the door. Then there is poor Weruche Opia, who plays Peggy’s best friend Carol, and is given the impossible task of resurrecting the character’s lifeless dialogue. For a series of eight episodes there is a large ensemble introduced around Peggy and perhaps it is Bernadette Peters’s turn as Rosalyn that could do with the most fleshing out.
Arquette, who picked up an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for a career high performance in 2014’s Boyhood, was also an executive producer on High Desert. This follows her executive producing Apple TV+ critical darling Severance and Escape at Dannemora, the prison break drama in which she also starred. Fresh from such form, she plunges headfirst into the role and is ready on-cue to wail, charm, shriek, hustle and moan when called upon – sometimes all in the same scene. It’s as committed as it is exhausting.
The problem with High Desert starts and ends with Peggy herself. The show’s only developed character, she is flawed and frustrating, that much is intended. But her happy-go-lucky nature would only be enough to carry the show if the jokes were not tired, the comedy wasn’t so reliant on slapstick, and she had even a hint of chemistry with any of the large number of supporting characters.
Her drug addiction feels like an afterthought. We are told she is grieving her mother, but rarely that’s rarely shown. When he is allowed on camera, Dillon rasps a few affections for her without any feeling between the pair who we are told are, or once were, very much in love. And Peggy’s apparent genius for deduction and detective work, which forms the plot’s basis, only seems to be talent because of the buffoons and losers who surround her. Sherlock can rest easy.
There is a lot going on in High Desert, but even among multiple layers of narrative there isn’t any consistent threat, excitement, or, above all, fun. For one of Arquette’s bigger roles of recent years it feels sad to watch such an enthusiastic turn from a dud script.
High Desert is out now on AppleTV+