“High Desert” opens on a very California Thanksgiving. Rather than cozy sweaters and falling leaves, Peggy’s (Patricia Arquette) lavish home in Yucca Valley (located about 30 minutes north of Palm Springs) offers a shimmering pool and scuba gear. Children splash and shout. Her husband, Denny (Matt Dillon), cools off with a beer, while Peggy’s brother Stewart (Keir O’Donnell) and sister Dianne (Christine Taylor) admire the sleek decor and state-of-the-art entertainment system. Even the camera — gliding through the house in a single uncut shot — acts like a true Californian, breezily passing through open doors and absent walls, paying no mind to the weather because why would anyone notice a sunny, 75-degree day?
What’s hard to miss, however, are the DEA agents and their battering ram. What was once a hot but traditional Thanksgiving pivots to utter chaos as Peggy hollers orders at her guests, trying to hide money, dispose of drugs, and otherwise limit the evidence soon to be used against her in court. The shift from serenity to insanity is jarring, but “High Desert” never looks back — and better still, the action-packed scene isn’t setting up a flashback. Unlike far too many modern movies and shows, this is no in media res opening. The new Apple TV+ comedy isn’t made for that. It wants to live in the madness, and it never wants you to know where it’s going.
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Created by Nancy Fichman, Katie Ford, and Jennifer Hoppe, “High Desert” can be discombobulating in its mission to sew mayhem on top of mayhem. The main narrative picks up 10 years after that fateful Thanksgiving raid, and Peggy hasn’t exactly reformed. She’s trying, sort of, but she’s a hustler at heart, an addict for life, and a daughter who just lost her mom. Arquette rips through each episode, embracing her lead character’s tornado of motivations just as she does her tricky dichotomy as a well-intentioned woman who’s almost always lying. Centering eight episodes (let alone future seasons) on such a messy figure ensures some spillover into the viewing experience, which can feel overwhelming early on, but “High Desert” settles into a black comic tone that’s ultimately more charming than unwieldy.
Peggy’s problems tend to build in one of two ways: Usually, she creates them. Sometimes it’s out of kindness, like when her coworker gets scammed by a private investigator, and Peggy promises to get her money back. But within those helpful gestures, Peggy tends to find an angle for herself. When she meets Bruce Harvey (Brad Garrett), the aforementioned P.I., Peggy does, indeed, demand he return her friend’s money… but not before she pours herself a cup of coffee and pitches her services. She could be a P.I.! She could help him with the business! She’s got plenty of ideas for a score here or a score there!
Peggy assists just enough to charm new friends, like Bruce, even if it takes relentless arm twisting to get them there. But that brings us to where her other problems originate: Because Peggy is willing to stretch the truth to fit her preferred narrative, those closest to her — mainly, her family — don’t believe a thing she says. Stewart and Dianne are sick of supporting her. They appreciate how Peggy cared for their mother during her final days, but now they want to sell the house and see their sister make an honest living — which is the last thing she’s suited for or wants to attempt.
As Peggy balances her quest for personal salvation and love of high-risk scams, “High Desert” often bolsters her pursuits through the town’s weird wasteland vibes, like with her job as an “actor” at an Old West theme park. Despite vehement complaints from the staff and a rather simple-minded manager, the various cowboys and bar maids can really put on a show. Gunfights are fast and furious. Barroom brawls expand beyond a few thrown punches — there are tipped over tables, two-story pratfalls, and exploding glass. Heck, Peggy even flies into a sizable melee while hanging from a chandelier. Where some shows may have drawn laughs from how poorly staged and cheaply planned the family-friendly funfair has become, “High Desert” takes pride in building out that corner of Yucca Valley with solid performances and production value.
Similarly memorable quirks can be found in the combination of character and place. Bruce’s office isn’t anything special, but what he does there — along with Garrett’s increasingly defeated turn — makes the highway-adjacent workspace feel less dime-a-dozen and more one-of-a-kind. Rupert Friend (“Homeland”) plays Guru Bob, a former newscaster who suffers a nervous breakdown on-air and starts fresh through peace, love, and forged artwork. Entitled and easily spooked, Bob never reaches his full potential — a few teased secrets don’t quite pay off as promised — but Friend, all wide-eyed and snippy, is a constant delight. (Matt Dillon, in a role you’ve seen him ace a dozen times before, gives good sleaze, with a side of soft-heartedness.)
As Peggy’s schemes stack up along with her problems, “High Desert” grows darker. Its violence is in the vein of the Coen Brothers — stark and sudden, often with an unsettling creative flourish — while its unstructured plotting can feel long movie-ish (in a bad way). But the first season never descends into nihilism, nor does it forget the sunshine inherent to its setting. What may, at times, feel like too much, always stays true to its own kooky vision, and as a showcase for Arquette (who also executive produces), “High Desert” provides an ample spotlight. It won’t be for everyone, but neither is a 75-degree Thanksgiving.
“High Desert” premieres Wednesday, May 17 with three episodes on Apple TV+. New episodes will be released weekly.
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