After weeks of nonsense, a tired co-worker Peggy (Patricia Arquette) finally tells exactly what he thinks of her in the season finale of Apple TV+’s High desert. “You talk and you talk and you talk and you promise the moon,” he rants, “and all you ever deliver is a grape.” And he’s not wrong – she exhales exaggerations and outright lies as easily as the rest of us inhale air.
But by then it’s almost become charming how good she is at talking about a big game. Because if Peggy’s MO is for promising too much and delivering too little, her show’s MO is the opposite. What begins as a meaningless story about a no-obscure in the middle of nowhere gradually grows into an invigoratingly bizarre mystery over eight half-hour chapters, in the tradition of sun-drenched neo-noirs such as The great Lebowski or Inherent vice.
It comes down to
An attractive gritty detective comedy.
Opening up about what we’ll learn from creators Nancy Fichman, Katie Ford and Jennifer Hoppe is a rare highlight for the heroine. It’s Thanksgiving 2013 in Palm Springs and Peggy is in her element as the gracious hostess who greets the guests, checks the turkey and drinks in the compliments. But the good times come to a final halt when armed DEA agents circle the house, causing Peggy and her family to rush to dispose of or hide the piles of drugs and money stashed in the house.
Ten years later, Peggy still hasn’t returned. She’s a recovering addict who can barely make ends meet as a pretend barmaid at a frontier town tourist attraction – and now that her mother (Bernadette Peters) has passed away, Peggy’s siblings (Keir O’Donnell and Christine Taylor) are preparing preparing to sell the house Peggy had stayed with her, leaving her with nowhere to go.
High desert‘s most immediately visible strength is a strong sense of personality. In a role that could hardly be further away Dismissalin icy, self-controlled Harmony, Arquette plays Peggy a hot mess who can’t help but slosh her Peggy-ness all over the place. Even if we don’t know what to think of her – and the series’ initial flaw is an emotional opacity that makes it hard to understand what we’d want for her, how much we should trust her or, frankly, why should we care about this – Arquette’s energy is too vibrant and specific to ignore.
The world around her feels equally alive. If director Jay Roach made Peggy’s Palm Springs home look like a dream come true, with its airy hallways and jewel-like pool, Yucca Valley is apparently where dreams dry up. It is not so much dilapidated as populated by people who seem to have lost their way. The central attraction is that fake border, which consists of a single dusty street overseen by a stressed dude (Eric Petersen) with mommy issues. The biggest celebrity is Guru Bob (Rupert Friend, allowed to flex his comedic muscles for once), a local news anchor turned drug-addicted cult leader whose mantra is “Everything is stupid.” The most prominent private investigator is Bruce (Brad Garrett), whose business is so bad that he resorts to selling old printers and used CPAP machines on eBay.
It’s the last thing Peggy focuses on as she tries to get her life back on track and on a whim decides to reboot herself as Bruce’s assistant. And while her sister points out, not unjustly, that “this sounds like another one of those crazy things you try in between rehab,” Peggy soon demonstrates a natural gift for sleuthing. Like con artists in pop culture from Saul Goodman to Howard Ratner, she has an instinctive understanding of what someone needs to hear, and a willingness to trample any boundary or denial to make sure they hear her say.
She also has an eye for small details and knows how to use them to her advantage. The first time she marches into Bruce’s office, she makes herself at home and then sets him up with a cup of coffee, after figuring out exactly how he takes it by digging in his trash beforehand. By the time he finishes his drink, he’s stunned and has agreed to take on this complete stranger as an intern.
High Desert’The film’s early aimlessness evolves into a sympathetic roughness midway through the season, warmed by a surprising amount of heart. While the show doesn’t wade too deeply into the undercurrent of melancholy, it offers a glimpse into the pain at the center of Peggy’s life. It also shows us the genuine love around her. Arquette is well matched by Matt Dillon as her criminal ex Denny, who has a tendency to send her to ruin but also cares enough to take a dumb call from her while she’s in the middle of an armed robbery. She also has a true blue bestie in Carol, who looks to all the world as a decent and decent doctor’s wife – but who imbues the script and actor Weruche Opia with enough mystery and mischief to keep us guessing.
At the same time, High desert cheers up the absurdity with each passing episode, until the case has expanded to include a cold-blooded murder case, a series of art forgeries, family grudges, and a father-daughter hit team with a nipple-cutting thing. And that’s just the job. Off the clock, Peggy has to deal with the appearance of her mother’s creepy doppelgänger (also Peters), whom she enlists in an autobiographical theater project in an attempt to make ends meet. Every now and then the story threatens to collapse under the weight of all this stuff; questions about Mama’s doppelgänger, for instance, inexplicably blow by like so many amulets. But like his own heroine, High desert has a way of making too much feel just right.