Despite its tagline promising to “dig deeper,” the first episode of USA’s new 10-episode limited series feels remarkably flat. Created by Tim Kring (Heroes) and Gideon Raff (Prisoners Of War, adapted in the U.S. as Homeland), Dig centers around FBI agent Peter Connelly (Jason Isaacs). In the wake of personal tragedy, he requests reassignment to Jerusalem, where he meets a student archaeologist whose murder leads him into a 2,000-year-old mystery.
Pilots are notoriously unwieldy, cramming characters, plot, and setting—in this case, a setting crucial to the story—into too few minutes, but Dig makes those introductions blandly formulaic, undermining any sense of awe that springs from its early intimations of epic narrative. A tale of international intrigue, Biblical prophecy, and murder could be thrilling or mysterious or meditative, but this feels almost routine.
Peter’s disaffected and dislocated, and Dig wants to be sure we know it. The introduction of Peter and his boss (and “occasional sex buddy”) Lynn Monahan (Anne Heche) turns disaffection into deflation. After a series of off-screen grunts and gasps, the camera pans to them lying together, fully clothed. “Do you think we’ll ever do this without our clothes on?” she asks, and the implied answer—to this and to anything else anyone might ask Peter—is no.
He’s a caricature of closed-off masculinity. He disrobes only after he turns his back on Lynn. His baggage is still packed after seven months, and he barks at his boss and lover, “Don’t touch my stuff! Don’t touch it!” Later, he phones his wife and utters not a word; she scolds and worries as he scowls silently into the dark.
Peter’s an FBI agent, but there’s no indication he’s a good one. At best, he’s sloppy and distracted. He leaves a classified dossier in the street to play a pick-up game of soccer with neighborhood kids. He withholds crucial information and evidence. He constantly battles with local officials over jurisdiction, and in this first episode, Peter and Israeli police Det. Golan Cohen (Ori Pfeffer) scuffle in the street while their mutual suspect escapes out a window.
The resulting rooftop chase should be gripping. Peter races after the fugitive, giving us a tour of the city in glimpses: dark tunnels opening into sun-drenched streets, tight alleys crisscrossed with side passages, a parade of religious pilgrims obstructing Peter’s pursuit. But it’s undermined both by its clichés and by Peter’s stereotyped aloofness. Dig assumes the audience’s sympathy with him, but never works to establish it. The chase ends with him, disoriented and transfixed by a young woman with cherry-red hair, drawing his weapon in a crowded marketplace, which earns him another scolding from Lynn.
That’s all Lynn seems to do, making this a thankless role for Anne Heche. She hounds Peter to give up his habitual jurisdictional squabbles, which hamper investigations and rouse resentment for his colleagues, and he ignores her. Her transition from understanding friend to uncompromising boss would be impressive if it had any force, but—at least in the pilot—no one ever does anything Lynn says. She can’t even keep a visiting detective from smoking in her office; her commanding “Don’t even think about smoking!” is followed a scant minute later by a resigned “I guess I can’t stop you.”
The women of Dig’s first episode exist only to scold or be scolded, or to become corpses haunting Peter. When he stumbles across the red-haired young woman again, it’s not hard to guess which one she’ll be. Emma Wilson (Alison Sudol), an archaeology student working on a dig under the streets of Jerusalem, takes Peter on a forbidden midnight visit to her site, begins to seduce him with frank artlessness, and begs him not to call the police when they spy trespassers performing a ritual sacrifice.
Emma reminds Peter of his daughter—of course she does—but that doesn’t stop him from stripping naked and smooching with her in an ancient ritual bath. In a complex character, the mingling of filial grief and lust could be revealing, mournful, or darkly compelling, but Dig doesn’t delve into the complexities of Peter’s motivations or emotions, so it just seems icky. When he next sees her, it’s in the coroner’s photos, because Emma Wilson is a character born only to set a plot in motion.
Despite its much-publicized (and often-disturbed) location setting in Jerusalem, Dig’s most powerful sequences occur elsewhere, in part because they aren’t laid out in boilerplate exposition. In Oppland, Norway, the unblemished red heifer of Biblical prophecy is born, and its Orthodox keepers will guard it carefully until they transport it to Israel. In New Mexico, evangelist and author Tad Billingham (David Costabile) and his disciples keep captive a boy, now on the eve of his 13th birthday, who studies for his destiny. What that destiny is, we’re not told, but it’s a rarefied one that demands his feet must never touch soil.
The Rev. Billingham impassively reveals the terrible truth to Josh (Zen McGrath). The cult members have lied to him for years; his parents won’t come for him because they’re long dead. He ends his revelations with simple instructions: “You’re not going to cry now.” He urges Josh to focus on his years of study because “that time is upon us.” Debbie is superficially gentler, all soft smiles and sweet tones, but her words are as pragmatic as Billingham’s: “We’d do anything for you. We’d die for you if we had to. You’re that important,” she tells him, deflecting his pleas with, “It’s what you’re being raised for.” He’s as prized as the unblemished red heifer, and as readily sacrificed.
Costabile, a reliably agile character actor, fleshes out Billingham into something more than the script allots him. He’s full of satisfaction and menace, with a hint of vanity—a dangerous combination, especially for a man with a squad of followers at his command. Lauren Ambrose does her dewy-eyed best as Debbie, the underwritten caregiver for Josh. She watches him study ancient prophecies and sneaks him to a grassy patch of yard to soak up sunshine, though she must know that treading on the grass unfits him for his destiny. It’s this indiscretion that allows Josh to engineer an escape… of sorts.
Excavations under the Temple Mount, a golden breastplate of ancient divination, a professor willing to murder for that breastplate and conspirators who will kill to free him, Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians working across the globe to bring about an unspecified prophecy (but it’s not hard to guess), and a man risking his career and his safety as he struggles with grief… it could be a tale rich in mystery, meaning, and adventure. Perhaps in the next nine episodes, Dig will deliver thrills and subtleties, or weave some humanizing personal revelations in with its Biblical revelations. But for the moment, it all seems pretty shallow.
- The title of The Rev. Billingham’s book: Immortality Through Christ. Uh-oh.
- That’s Angela Bettis as Fay, the steely-eyed disciple who does Billingham’s dirtiest work.
- Peter’s wife calls to apologize, saying she gets upset “whenever I hear your voice,” but (in the two different versions of the episode provided to me), she didn’t hear his voice. He called her up, then sat in silence.
- When his uncle invites him to Friday dinners with his estranged family, Det. Cohen says he would come, “but not alone.” His uncle waves it off: “That’s for others to judge.”
- That is emphatically not how you take a mikvah. Devout bathers wash and scrub and carefully remove loose hairs and calluses before entering the water. The suggestion that Peter and Emma were about to have sex in the ritual bath is a special kind of violation, and a more interesting show would grapple with that implicit sacrilege.
- Emma calls the Ark Of The Covenant “the most important find in human history,” but probably not for its value as a face-melting war machine.