Befitting its subject matter, “Coyote” has already had an unusual journey. Once planned as a weekly, ten-episode series for the Paramount Network, it was shut down for the pandemic at six episodes, which will now premiere on CBS All Access in one bingeworthy drop. As if that’s not enough, the program itself is an unusually bumpy road in terms of quality. Just when you think it’s working, a hackneyed line of dialogue throws off the rhythm. Just when you’re about to give up on it, a clever piece of plotting brings you back. Rarely have I gone back and forth more on a show over only six episodes. The craftsmanship, plotting, and performances are top notch. But the broad stereotypes early in the season, the lack of female characters who feel three-dimensional, and the inconsistent dialogue constantly pull it away from its potential. The truth is that the remaining four episodes of this season may have brought it all together but could just have easily succumbed to the weaknesses as well. It could be a long time before we really know if “Coyote” is any good, but there’s enough potential in this run that I’m curious to see where it ends up.
One of the interesting things about what is basically a two-part premiere duo from the great Michelle MacLaren is how much it feels like other shows. Of course, MacLaren is a master TV director, and some of her best work was done on another show that loved the desert, “Breaking Bad.” Like that show, “Coyote” is the story of a man who gets increasingly in over his head with a series of tough decisions. And that’s not the only familiar feeling, as any show that puts Michael Chiklis in a uniform is going to bring back echoes of “The Shield,” especially if they give him a few questionable ethics (he literally drops a “f*ck protocol” before the 30-minute mark). Now, Ben Clemens is no Vic Mackey on the moral spectrum, but he does have an awfully black and white view of his job as a border agent, which is coming to a close after 32 years. Luckily, the creators of “Coyote” don’t lean too hard into their clichés before subverting them, sending the man who spent his life pushing people back into Mexico below the border himself.
It turns out that Ben’s former partner, now deceased, was working on a house in Mexico, and Ben goes down there to complete the project. Before he knows it, he’s stumbled into a very bad scene, including a pregnant girl who Ben ferries across the border to safety. Through the desert, of course. The border agent who is now forced to help a girl find sanctuary when he barely listened to the stories of those he sent back into dangerous situations for over three decades feels a little cheap and underdeveloped at times, but the writers of “Coyote” pretty quickly move on from making their show into either a White Savior narrative or even a Racist Learns a Lesson story. Instead, they basically drop Ben into a criminal organization. You see, the baby daddy for the girl was a figure in a large Mexican crime ring, and now Ben owes them a favor or two.
MacLaren shows her skills with pacing and visual language in the first pair of episodes, making the questionable plotting and dialogue easy to take. But then things slide back a bit in the next pair, sinking into tropes and stereotypes in disappointing ways. The writing just isn’t there in episodes three and four, as if the team can’t figure out how to get to the meat of their story without using a few cliché handbooks along the way. Without MacLaren’s craftsmanship, it’s easier to notice things like how every female character is a plot device and lines like “You aren’t getting cuffed cuz you’re brown, you’re getting cuffed cuz we’re blue” get harder to swallow.
Against all odds, “Coyote” bounces back. Perhaps because it’s so focused, the fifth episode gives much needed depth and urgency to the show. Without spoiling anything, it basically takes place in one location and gives Clemens’ partner Garrett (George Pullar) more of a character while also allowing Daniel Mora to basically steal the show as a villain who becomes significant later on. Overall, it broadens the canvas of the program and gives it more immediate stakes. And then the finale reaches a place that you might expect to the show to get much later, setting up what could have been a great four-episode final run of this year or potentially a much stronger second season. We’ll have to wait and see if “Coyote” ever gets there.
Whole season screened for review.