Apple TV+’s High Desert Is Ridiculous, Delightful, and a Showcase for Patricia Arquette

TV Reviews High Desert
Apple TV+’s High Desert Is Ridiculous, Delightful, and a Showcase for Patricia Arquette

It’s not often you can say that a new show offers something unique, but Apple TV+’s High Desert may be that rare unicorn. I’ve certainly never seen anything like it, and this is one of those deals where a nuts-and-bolts description—Peggy, played by Patricia Arquette, is a recovering drug addict who responds to her mother’s death and her imminent eviction by attempting to become a private investigator—tells you almost nothing. Gun to head, the nearest point of comparison is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, which has the same seedy neo-western aesthetic and the same manic energy emanating from the lead, mixed with a little Elmore Leonard on his urban scruff kick. And Arquette, at 55, is like a sharper Jennifer Coolidge (same eyes, nearly the same voice), every bit as funny but a little more cutthroat, a little more intimidating.

High Desert begins and ends with Arquette. Everyone else is along for the ride, and whether they’re solid or just functional, they’re like the light-up pieces in a pinball machine; interesting on their own, to a degree, but mostly there to give the ball a few obstacles to careen against. Arquette is the ball, and careen she does, barely staying afloat in her messy life by means of pure inertia, never quite comfortable unless she’s teetering on the brink of total chaos and trying to make disparate parts fit together in some haphazard, nonsensical symphony that never quite works. Arquette is remarkable as this vulnerable con artist, simultaneously orchestrating all parts of her surroundings and at the total mercy of the gods. Created by Grace and Frankie and Nurse Jackie’s Nancy Fichman and Jennifer Hoppe-House, alongside Katie Ford and directed by Austin Powers’ Jay Roach, there is a rhythm to all this, and to praise the show is to praise the inner narrative harmony of the unharmonious whole. (Another comparison that just came to mind: This is like Lodge 49, but not boring.)

Patricia Arquette in Apple TV+'s High Desert

In the supporting roles, it’s the men who stand out as particularly strong foils, as though Peggy needs masculine counterparts to bring out the full range of her psychological palette. Rupert Friend is hysterical as “Guru Bob,” whose bullshit falls apart in Peggy’s incisive gaze, Matt Dillon makes an ideal dissolute husband/jailbird, and Brad Garrett, though underused, shines in the role of the downtrodden PI trying to take Peggy under his wing but is swept away in her current instead. In fact, if there’s one complaint to be voiced about High Desert, it’s that the writers spend a little too much time with the parts of the story that don’t quite work, and not enough with those that do (shout out to Bernadette Peters, typically wonderful but criminally short on screen time through the first three episodes).

Be warned: If you watch this show, and like it, you’re going to have a hell of a time explaining what you see in it to others. The best thing you can say is that Patricia Arquette is a hustler’s hustler, for whom the confusion of life is like a tidal wave she’s forced to ride, and the only thing scarier than being at the top of that wave’s crest is not taking the ride at all. Shark-like, she has to keep moving, has to stay optimistic in the face of comically poor odds, must keep dreaming as life keeps sending signals her way that every dream will be squashed. You end up loving people like this, because one of the strange anomalies of life is that sometimes, their energy manages to win out against whatever stifling forces push down from the ether; sometimes, the weirdos win.

Peggy is your consummate weirdo, and Arquette nails the vibes. To watch her try to pull one over on a world that rewards sensibility is extraordinarily fun, and the rest of the show keeps pace one perfect half-step behind the viewer. This is a desert world of hidden energies and dark influences, and once you settle in for the ride, you find that you don’t just root for Peggy… you need her. She’s the roman candle Kerouac worshiped, in the modern flesh, and there’s comfort in the fact that she’s never going to burn out.

High Desert premieres Wednesday, May 17th on Apple TV+. 

Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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