Review: Coyote by Michelle MacLaren
WHAT IT’S ABOUT After 32 years as a career officer with the Border Patrol, Ben Clemens (Michael Chiklis) is finally forced to retire, and scarcely before his retirement party has wrapped, he’s summoned to Mexico, south of Tijuana, where he has to finish building his old partner’s fishing cabin that overlooks the Pacific. As Ben gets to meet the locals, he unintentionally becomes entangled with María Elena Flores (Emy Mena), a Salvadoran teen migrant and girlfriend of one of the town’s especially ruthless crime bosses. Also pregnant, she needs his help — desperately. Filmed pre-pandemic, mostly in Mexico, this comes from veteran showrunner David Graziano (“Southland,” Terra Nova”).
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MY SAY Chiklis’ much-anticipated return to series TV was supposed to launch on the Paramount Network over the summer, but something happened to the best-laid plans of men and networks in the meantime. A few things, actually: Paramount decided to dump TV series altogether (other than “Yellowstone”) and pushed this over to sister service CBS All Access. Then came the pandemic, which proceeded to upend everything else, leaving “Coyote” — along with the rest of the planet — in limbo.
Now it arrives and (like everything else), it’s not quite whole either. Instead of the original 10 episodes, the six that drop Thursday left the American/Mexican production team just enough running time to wrap the season and build a springboard for the second.
We’ll have to decide together whether that springboard arrives (this review is based on the first couple of episodes), but sometimes in television, all’s well that begins well, and “Coyote” certainly gets off on the right footing. “Breaking Bad” co-showrunner Michelle MacLaren (also a producer here) directs the first two episodes where she reasserts that gift for pace and setting. Like “Bad,” her landscapes are sere and blood-red, and places where the mountain ranges are so sharp they seem to cut the sky, the boundless deserts where people go to die — quickly, if they are lucky. Human artifacts — like SUVs or guns or border fences, for that matter — also feel like intruders in the dust. They’re here-today-gone-tomorrow, and eventually piles of rust, alongside the bleached human bones.
There’s your setting. Now, about that star. Veteran TV fans know how great Chiklis is, but we’ve also come to suspect (or fear) that that greatness is almost entirely rooted in “The Shield,” which ended back in 2008. In the interim, there were regrettable detours (“No Ordinary Family”) and not-at-all-regrettable ones (“Gotham”). But Vic Mackey remains happily, indelibly, part of our TV worldview, and always will.
There is certainly some Vic in Ben — the short fuse, the latent explosive violence, the most distinctive, hardened dome in all of television. But unlike Vic, Ben believes in rules so much that he enforces them after leaving the force. Meanwhile, a heart beats within. It’s a well-hidden heart, to be sure, but it’s a big one. (No one would ever accuse Vic of that.)
The rest of the cast, or almost the rest, is Latinx, and excellent too. “Coyote” doesn’t talk about the border but goes beyond it, to see people — their lives, dreams, and tragedies — up close. Politics (ours) thus become inverted and it’s left to Ben to make sense of this inversion. By proxy, it’s up to us as well.