Patricia Arquette won a deserved Oscar for “Boyhood” and then spent the last decade doing some of the most interesting work on television in award-winning shows like “Escape from Dannemora” and “Severance.” On both of those shows, the consistently fantastic star of “True Romance” worked with director Ben Stiller, who was originally going to collaborate with Arquette again on “High Desert,” the acerbic Apple TV+ comedy premiering this week on the streaming giant. When Stiller stepped away for undisclosed reasons, director Jay Roach (“Bombshell”) took over, helming all eight episodes of this unusual tonal tightrope that contains elements of noir, comedy, drama, satire, and thriller in one strange package. As much as Roach gets the job done here, I wondered if Stiller might have pulled the pieces of this inconsistent effort together with a more needed flair. Could he have balanced the heart and humor more deftly or added some of the odd framing and pacing that made “Severance” fascinating? Maybe, but he likely couldn’t have done more with his new muse because Arquette rocks here yet again, holding “High Desert” together even as it threatens to wander off into the barren TV landscape.
Arquette plays Peggy, a former addict and dealer going through an identity crisis. She works at one of those miserable fake Old West tourist attractions, complete with phony shoot-outs in the saloon, and she struggles with a brother (Keir O'Donnell) and sister (Christine Taylor) who want to sell the home of their deceased mother (Bernadette Peters). Life-changing events like the death of a parent have a habit of unmooring people, and Peggy is definitely adrift, thanks in no small part to her ex-husband Denny (Matt Dillon) being behind bars. She has a close ally in a friend named Carol (Weruche Opia) but seems to lack direction overall. When she stumbles into the life of a private investigator named Bruce (Brad Garrett), Peggy realizes she has the street smarts to be a pretty great P.I. Sadly, “High Desert” doesn’t become “Poker Face” with a wise-cracking Arquette—I’d totally watch that show—but focuses mostly on one case involving a phony guru named Bob (Rupert Friend), a missing wife, and a stolen Picasso.
“High Desert” is at its best when it’s at its weirdest, pulling back the curtain on Palm Springs to reveal the odd personalities behind the opulent destination. Strange details like talking birds and an amputated nipple pepper the mystery plot in a way that recalls “Inherent Vice” or “The Big Lebowski,” but Roach isn’t quite Paul Thomas Anderson or the Coen brothers, and this kind of kookiness can be hard to maintain for an eight-episode season. I found some of the comedic whiplashes of “High Desert” to be a bit too much for the show to contain, like a car skidding off the road, even if it typically does find its way back to the pavement before the end of each chapter. And when the writers try to inject emotion into the grief that Peggy still feels for her mother, it’s almost like the writers don’t know what to do with what Arquette is bringing. It sometimes seems like a show with a performer working too hard to elevate the writing, even if watching her pull it off as often as she does here can be rewarding.
It should be noted that Arquette isn’t alone. Dillon leans into a smarmy charm that’s reminiscent of his work in “There’s Something About Mary,” Friend finds some desperately funny notes as a former news anchor who experienced a trauma that sent him careening into another life altogether, and Peters is an always-welcome presence in just about anything. However, even they feel restrained by an overly straightforward approach. “High Desert” nods to weirdness more often than just being weird, if that makes sense, and there are versions of the Dillon and Friend characters in particular that work better by having their volume turned up a bit. (And Opia’s part is woefully underwritten.)
Of course, it all comes back to Patricia Arquette, an actress still underrated in her ability to blend genres in unpredictable, rich character work. She’s phenomenal here, spinning through the chaos of Peggy’s life with a style that's completely her own, constantly making unique acting decisions. Even as they threaten to crash to the ground, she keeps the plates of this show spinning high in the air.
Whole season was screened for review.