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'Dig' premiere react: Digging for answers--and interesting characters

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Ronen Akerman/USA Network

Dig has lofty goals—it wants to be about faith, invoking a 2,000-year-old prophecy while setting some of its story in one of the most religiously historic regions in the world. And that’s no surprise, considering the show comes from the executive producers of Homeland, a show that has had similarly high aspirations about the world’s political state, and Heroes, which aimed (aims?) to tell an interweaving worldwide story of several different characters.

Dig‘s DNA is apparent in its premiere, but unfortunately it comes saddled with the weakness of both its predecessors rather than their strengths.

Separated into three stories, Dig’s pilot focuses primarily on Peter Connelly (played by Jason Isaacs, who was used to much better effect in another TV pilot, Awake), an FBI agent coping with the loss of his daughter by working abroad in Jerusalem. He sleeps (with clothes on) with his boss (Anne Heche) at the U.S. consulate and buries himself in his work to avoid properly grieving. He’s a faithless man, but when he meets a woman, Emma (Alison Sudol), who looks suspiciously like his daughter (making their scene kissing and skinny-dipping in a pool all the more creepy), his worldview begins to, if not shift, at least become more open to the possibility of other forces at work.

Especially when that woman, a young archeology student who shows him the tunnels beneath Jerusalem where she’s searching for the Ark of the Covenant (fear not, Indiana Jones is name checked), shows up dead. His boss refuses to let him investigate, but he does the next best thing—lies to the local police to jump on the case and begin assisting with transporting the criminal in another case back to America.

While Peter is on the case, Dig also focuses on two other plots that take a bit more of a backseat—a young boy named Josh trapped in some religious cult in the American southwest, and a young Hasidic Jewish man taking care of a fabled red heifer in Norway.

Both of these subplots bring out the worst in Dig, when everything becomes about plot setup and not about making sure there are interesting characters to drive those plots. It’s one thing to want your show to be mysterious, to have hooks that keep viewers coming back for more. But without a Jack Shephard, Hiro Nakamura, or Carrie Mathison to make these plots feel substantial, all that’s left are a few vaguely intriguing mysteries, the answers to which would be just as thrilling to read about after the fact as they would be to watch.

That’s not to say these threads of producers Tim Kring and Gideon Raff’s story don’t have some worthwhile elements—the cult that appears to have clones and the red heifer’s actual biblical significance are curious enough that I’m considering checking in later in the season to see how these stories progress. But there’s very little to them so far, and what is there feels both slight and needlessly opaque.

So the brunt of the work in Dig’s extended pilot falls to Isaacs, who has proven he can portray a work-focused but familially troubled man (Have I mentioned how good he is in Awake?). He does what he can even when the material fails him, and his charming-yet-antagonistic relationship with local policeman Golan (Ori Pfeffer) is the show’s one upbeat and truly entertaining aspect in an otherwise stonefaced hour.

Peter’s plot is also where the show introduces its most fascinating—and ridiculous—mysteries, including a breastplate belonging to the High Priest of Israel that would allow him to communicate with God, some ancient gems missing from the plate, and Hasidic underground ritualistic animal sacrifices.

And while the other two plots feel underdeveloped, some obvious seeds have already been planted for connecting them to Peter’s plight—the gemstones missing from the breastplate look much like the ones Josh was coloring in his book, and the heifer in Norway will likely play a role in some future sacrifice. It can often feel forced in the same way that Kring’s Heroes felt like it bent over backward, sideways, and began to somersault to ensure plots remained interconnected. But anchored by Isaacs’ performance, it all has enough promise and biblical heft to incite some curiosity.

Issacs’ side of the story is also helped by the on-location shooting. The area is so steeped in history that it adds some weight to the exterior and tunnel shoots. It doesn’t necessarily improve the show’s flaws, but as our TV critic Jeff Jensen said, “the vibrant, gritty evocation of Jerusalem as a hot, crowded house of commingling, competing faiths steals the show.” (He gave Dig a B.)

But Dig’s problems are best encapsulated, literally and metaphorically, in the pilot’s two extended chase sequences. The chases feel lengthy, and in a pilot that is already longer than the normal 44 minutes, it’s a shame Dig couldn’t use all that time to create substantial thematic struggles or characters outside of Peter. Instead, Dig sets the viewers up on a chase, a chase for answers, but it forgets to make that chase a dramatically fun one in the process.

A number of shows have attempted that formula, including several from this show’s producers, but it’s a formula that more often fails than it succeeds in this case. As a result, Dig is so mired down in setting up too many mysteries in the hopes that viewers will be hooked that it forgets to make some of those mysteries, along with the show’s cast and world, worth exploring.

Curious about Dig? Watch the full pilot episode:

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