Perhaps it is a sign that I have watched too much television, or a sign that television has watched too much television and all entertainment is about to eat itself in the tri-meta-po-mo world we live in – but my overriding thought when watching Patricia Arquette’s magnificent turn in High Desert is: “This is what it would be like if a Jennifer Coolidge character was real.” Which I think is, overall, a compliment, and for Arquette and her writers a triumph.
On the other hand, it can make things exhausting. High Desert is many things but it is not a bingewatch. In fact, it is precisely because it is so many things that you are better off consuming it as a weekly half-hour treat than a straight eight-episode feast.
Arquette plays Peggy, a warm-hearted, lovably absurd figure whom we meet hosting a family party in her luxurious SoCal home for Thanksgiving 2003. Then the DEA burst through the door and put an abrupt end to what turns out to have been a drug-deal-fuelled lifestyle (“Just pot! And a little hash!” she later protests. “I only did cocaine”).
We next meet her 10 years later, after the recent death of her beloved mother Roslyn (Bernadette Peters). Her husband Denny (Matt Dillon) is in prison, she is on a methadone treatment programme, estranged from her now grownup son and working as a barmaid/can-can girl at an Old West theme park. When her siblings Stewart and Dianne (Keir O’Donnell and Christine Taylor) – still smarting from being caught up in the DEA raid a decade ago, though one suspects Peggy and her addictions haven’t given them a lot of peace since then – announce that they need to sell the family home Peggy lived in while caring for Roslyn, the pressure is on for Peggy to find a job she can do in between can-cans that pays enough to afford the mortgage.
When her best friend Carol (Weruche Opia) is ripped off for $300 by private investigator Bruce Harvey (Brad Garrett), Peggy rolls up her sleeves, goes round to collect the cash and finds her true calling as a PI. After terrorising Harvey’s landlord into waiting for Harvey’s unpaid rent, she finds their first proper case – a fellow dancer’s ex appears to be selling stolen masterpieces. He (played by Rupert Friend) is a former TV presenter who had a meltdown on air and, in true California fashion, reinvented himself as “Guru Bob”. He now uses the catchphrase that sent his live breakdown viral (“Everything is stupid!”) as a mantra for his followers.
On top of that there is a theft from the theme park safe; a missing mafia wife; a nipple-slicing father-daughter hitman team; the release of Denny from prison and Peggy’s inability to resist being drawn into various scams and schemes he comes up with; acid trips and flashbacks; a TV actor who is a dead ringer for Roslyn (also played by Bernadette Peters), which causes quite some discombobulation, especially during the acid trips – and much, much more.
That it makes sense at all is down to Arquette, whose powerful charisma draws the whole thing together, and whose ability to keep a vulnerable side to Peggy apparent through all her chaos, misjudgments and exuberance gives you something to invest in. Otherwise, High Desert is very much a case of style over substance. It looks gorgeous, there is an endless parade of side characters, each brighter and kookier than the last, and the New Agey energy and stupidity of southern California is at least as much a presence as they are.
But there is too much going on to allow the viewer to care about any of it other than Peggy herself. It feels like a fertile premise – how do you rebuild a life when you only want to have fun and make sure everyone around you has fun too? – largely squandered, in terms of comedy and drama. Because although you keep waiting for them and often feel – in a trippy, Peggy-life way – that you must have heard some, there aren’t actually any jokes in High Desert. It’s always a rush, but without backstories (Carol’s mysterious past, for example, is never explored) or any deeper digging into exactly what produced the bundle of charm, resourcefulness and idiosyncracies that is Peggy, it starts to feel a bit empty.
It is enough, of course, for something to be fun while it lasts. But with Arquette and everyone around her clearly capable of so much more, and the premise perfectly set up for them to do so, it’s a shame it didn’t happen.
• High Desert is on Apple TV+