Briarpatch

Even before I knew what Briarpatch was, I knew what it sounded like. Before Rosario Dawson was cast as Allegra Dill – heck, before Allegra Dill was Allegra Dill, back when she was still Benjamin Dill, living on the yellowed pages of my well-thumbed paperback copy of Ross Thomas’s 1984 novel – I had a playlist. Into that playlist went an eclectic mix of songs and sonic inspirations, a non-intuitive mishmash of ‘90s shoegaze and ‘50s folk, of spectral, Euro-techno weirdness and dusty, plainspoken Americana. I would listen to this playlist and go for long runs around my new neighborhood in Los Angeles and think about all of things I wanted my first TV show to be about: the yoke of family, the challenge of shared history, the impossible expectations society places on women, and all of the corrosive, comedic things that fester in the dark hearts of small towns. Briarpatch was built, quite literally, from the sound up.

In 2018, when I got the green light to actually make the show, one of the first people I called was Giancarlo Vulcano. Giancarlo and I had met a few years earlier on the not-at-all mean streets of Brownstone Brooklyn and bonded immediately over a set of highly-specific interests: art house cinema, European novels, and the myriad ways genre gives free reign to the most interesting aspects of storytelling: the absurd, the heartbreaking, and the divine.

As I would soon learn, making television is a chaotic and challenging job – like conducting a bullet train and laying track for it at the same time. Because of this, the most valuable working relationships are those that can be managed via shorthand, that are built on a shared set of aesthetic values, a common language of vibes. There was never a second choice of a composer for Briarpatch. I knew when Giancarlo heard my jumbled-up playlist, he wouldn’t be confused. He would be challenged. He would be inspired.

The music started coming almost immediately. Unlike most series, which add score late in the post process, Briarpatch was blessed with original pieces from the start. Giancarlo would send me fragments during production of the pilot and I would listen to his wiggly, melancholy guitar lines while watching giraffes saunter through the stifling, Albuquerque heat. When I returned to LA for the edit, Giancarlo flew across country to join the team, composing some of his most memorable riffs – like the deliciously off-kilter and propulsive “Freddy’s Beat” – in a spare bay while we screened cuts for the executives in the room next door. His music wasn’t an accessory to the finished product – it was threaded through every frame of it, as necessary as lighting and performance. A town as idiosyncratic as San Bonifacio, Texas can’t just look a certain way. It has to sound a certain way too: A very particular mix of jazzy intrigue and noir gloom. It has to swing and it has to seduce. It has to traverse comedy and tragedy and wind up in the swirl of both of them that we recognize, even through the heightened haze of fiction, as real life. Giancarlo’s score met the moment and then some.

Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the torrent of thrilling, beguiling music that flooded my inbox over the course of 2019. No matter how far we pushed things on the page – a swarm of unmanned drones, a military-style assault on a mansion, a camel, shimmering like a mirage, in the West Texas desert – Giancarlo pushed his imagination further, penning iconic themes for cliffhangers and characters alike. Whenever there was a question about how to communicate something internal that hadn’t translated from script to screen, there was Giancarlo ready to act as interpreter. His beautiful piece for Lucretia Colder spoke to her frenzied and tragic mental state. His elegy for Felicity Dill made her ghost tangible as it haunted her sister’s every move.

And “We’re Being Hunted” came to define the villainous Clyde Brattle nearly as much as Alan Cumming’s brilliant performance did – it captures an almost fluorescent menace, the evil that haunts Briarpatch specifically but also our American experiment generally. There is hope in every note of Giancarlo’s music but also the world-weariness that arises from hopes that have been dashed, time and again, on the all-too-familiar rocks of hubris, greed, and cruelty. There’s always a tiger lurking, whether you’re prepared for it or not.

So crank the thermostat, pour yourself a strong one and lose yourself in this electric, compelling collection. Just don’t expect it to be a short visit. As the sign welcoming travelers to Saint Disgrace put it, Briarpatch’s score “stays with you.” I’m lucky beyond words to have it stay with me.

-- Andy Greenwald, January 2021