Jordin Althaus/FX
July 10, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

On a sprawling 130-acre private estate whimsically named Hummingbird Nest in Simi Valley, Calif., the cast and crew of FX’s The Bridge have made themselves right at home. Not only is the gripping new drama — about a murder on the border between Texas and Mexico — shooting at the elaborate grounds today, but a table read for episode 4 is about to take place in one of the property’s airy stables. The setting is a striking contrast to the next day’s location: Grand vistas have been replaced by a sparse, cramped East L.A. treatment center dressed to look like a homeless shelter where detectives Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) and Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir) are questioning a person of interest.

The dissonance is fitting, considering the FX drama is intended to illuminate disparity. Adapted from the Scandinavian series of the same name, The Bridge opens on a ”dead body” — the top half of a female Texas judge and the lower half of a young Mexican girl — found on the bridge connecting El Paso to Juarez, Mexico. The ensuing murder investigation brings together two opposing cops, Sonya and Marco, while illustrating the corruption and violence around the U.S.-Mexico border. For Bichir, who was born in Mexico City and earned an Oscar nod for playing an illegal immigrant in 2011’s A Better Life, the material is particularly resonant. ”If it was up to me, I’d just do films or projects that could try to make a difference while we’re entertaining you,” he says, further praising The Bridge for talking about ”the problems on both sides of the border.”

The Bridge producers aren’t trying to be polemical in their depiction of these often controversial issues. ”It’s not the most attractive thing to talk about cartels and immigration and poverty,” says executive producer Meredith Stiehm, who was a producer-writer on the first two seasons of Showtime’s Emmy-winning Homeland. ”Everyone can grasp onto a murder mystery and cops and a serial-killer investigation. It was a way to ease people into a world that might make them uneasy.”

FX was actually the one initially feeling a little bit iffy about The Bridge. The network originally passed on the show — then set on the U.S.-Canada border. Even producers admit there were problems with the Niagara Falls location. ”But I’m like, ‘Then what are you doing? Maple-syrup fests?”’ says executive producer Elwood Reid. ”You think about a series running five seasons, and it needs enough gas to go five seasons. Where’s the fuel?” That changed once the series moved south. Explains Reid: ”In Mexico, it’s the opposite problem. We had so much fuel down there.” It was also the key to reigniting FX’s interest. ”At that point, I think there were a couple of networks that had [”offered”] series commitments,” says network president John Landgraf. ”We scrambled and got the producers to come in and pitch it to us. It was exactly what we were looking for.”

The first season of The Bridge will remain loyal to the original incarnation, with some natural digressions (Texas and Mexico are different from Scandinavia, after all). One element producers kept was Sonya’s struggle with Asperger’s and her abrasive demeanor. ”It’s a big responsibility,” says Stiehm. ”If you’re gonna portray it, you need to be responsible about it. Kind of like Carrie in Homeland, it’s important to show you can have this diagnosis but can also function and be an effective member of society.” That challenge and complexity drew Kruger, mostly known for her big-screen work in Inglourious Basterds and Troy, to the role. ”I never thought I would do TV,” she admits. ”My partner [Fringe‘s Joshua Jackson] was on television, and I see the work that goes into it, and the time. Cable is what made the difference. The writing is much more daring. How often do you really get to explore on a big studio movie a female character like this? Never!”

The producers vow that The Bridge will prove to be similarly rewarding for the audience, which is one way of saying that this murder mystery will not suffer from ”Who the Hell Killed Rosie Larsen?” syndrome. ”Meredith and I have a blood oath that we’re not going to do that,” Reid says. ”I promise you — it’s not The Killing. You have my word on it.” If not, ”put me in that Bullseye thing you do and put a big ‘Boo’ by me or something.” Deal.

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