While Andy Greenwald was writing his TV adaptation of Ross Thomas’s 1984 novel Briarpatch, he hit an illuminating roadblock.
In Thomas’s original novel, the lead character, Benjamin Dill, returns to his small Texas hometown to figure out who killed his sister, uncovering a complex web of secrets along the way.
From the start, Greenwald, who counts Thomas as his “favorite writer, full-stop,” loved the tone that Thomas created. “He has such a pitch-perfect balancing act between cynicism and hope, between laughter and tragedy,” Greenwald says. “I personally think that you can’t really understand dark without lightness.”
That certainly comes through in the elevated reality of Briarpatch, where a car bomb explosion in broad daylight elicits little more than someone remarking, “It appears someone just blew up the landlady.”
But as a former Grantland TV critic and current cohost of the pop-culture podcast The Watch, Greenwald had a unique perspective going into creating Briarpatch. He was coming from a place of analyzing TV shows and how they’re received by audiences, and he knew that although Thomas’s novel had a “solid and interesting spine,” he would have to “put different muscle and sinew and blood on top of it” to make it work today.
“I was really curious what would happen if you brought, not just this book, but noir into the modern age, sort of kicking and screaming into the light, and take the stories that were generally reserved for white male gumshoes in dark bars and let a woman of color do the same investigation,” Greenwald says of Rosario Dawson, who replaces Benjamin Dill as Allegra Dill in the show.
However, when Greenwald was writing Briarpatch back in 2016, he had an epiphany of sorts that forced him to challenge his own way of thinking within the new conceit he created for the show.
“I sat back and I read what I had written and I said to myself, why is [Allegra] so cold? And then I took another step back and I said, why am I wondering that, when Benjamin Dill was a classic noir hero and a little bit hard-boiled and cold?” Greenwald says. “Why am I wondering why a woman can’t be more emotional? What does that say about me and my own sense of biases?”
“And,” he adds, “I was writing it during the backdrop of our last nightmare presidential election.”
During the debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—and the subsequent hot takes and media coverage surrounding them—Greenwald felt what he was really watching was “a woman who was unable to be any emotion in any direction or else she would be pounced on.”
“She couldn’t be funny. She couldn’t be angry. She was hemmed in and trapped,” Greenwald says. “I realized then that this pilot I was writing put Allegra into a world that was entirely men. I realized that this is someone who is not only existing in a land of wolves, but she has been in for quite some time and is kind of comfortable in that. And so that really helped me understand her psychologically in the pilot and understand her struggle going forward.”
There are direct nods to Thomas’s text that take on new meaning with Dawson in the lead. For example, in the book Benjamin meets with the town’s crime reporter Freddie Laffter (John Aylward) at a restaurant. Laffter, who is white, antagonizes the waiter of color who slams Laffter right back but then shows deference to Dill, which makes Laffter ask, somewhat sarcastically, “How come he treats you like a white man?”
“That’s in the book, but it’s very different when he says that to Rosario Dawson,” Greenwald says. “I’m passionate about diversity in all aspects of this business and all aspects of a production. But, selfishly, it’s also really great for story, because it allows something that feels familiar to suddenly feel new.”
That said, dropping a woman of color into a historically white male archetype creates new textures to a story that you don’t have to be familiar with because the tropes themselves are so familiar.
Greenwald’s idea for switching around the lead character may have started from a personal place—”I’m an only child, so I find sibling relationships fascinating, and I have two daughters, so sister relationships are, in particular, on my mind”—but what he’s created with Briarpatch will hopefully signal to other white male show creators to think more broadly outside than their own experiences or reference points.
“This is a viewer’s market in terms of television. There are almost 600 original shows per year, so you can’t presume that chasing [your story] all the way up your own navel is going to be entertaining [to] other people,” Greenwald says. “I wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity that I was being given and make something that didn’t settle, that took big creative swings and sought to entertain, because I feel like my experience as a critic really taught me how valuable people’s time is and how many options they have out there for spending it.”
Briarpatch premieres on USA February 6.