In the tragicomic new Apple TV+ series High Desert, Patricia Arquette plays Peggy Newman, a drug addict and serial liar/improviser who’s trying to remake her life after her husband goes to jail and ruins her social standing.
The perpetually broke and broken Peggy is a marvelous creation. The first three episodes of High Desert arrived on Apple TV+ today, and the show is mighty good company.
High Desert recap: Season 1 opener
Season 1, episodes 1, 2 and 3: High Desert opens in 2013, and Peggy Newman (played by Patricia Arquette) has it all: a beautiful house in California, a handsome husband named Denny (Matt Dillon), friends, family, kids, money. And then it all changes in a minute. The authorities raid the Newmans’ house during a party. And that handsome husband makes everyone search every crevice and crawlspace for drugs and money to destroy before the Drug Enforcement Administration can get the cuffs on him.
Fast forward to 2023, and Peggy is working as a pretend madam at a cowboy ghost town, though she’s not exactly taking to it, what with her constant cellphone use. She’s trying to keep her co-workers from melting down, and hoping to impress upon her brother Nick (Keir O’Donnell) and sister Dianne (Christine Taylor) that she’s got her act together.
Of course, she does not. And Nick and Dianne tell her they’re selling their dead mother’s house, where Peggy’s been staying. In other words, Peggy’s screwed unless she finds a way to support herself in a hurry. To add insult to injury, she’s a recovering heroin addict (though not a terribly committed one), and temptation lies around every corner.
Hard times in the High Desert
Things take an interesting turn when her friend Carol (Weruche Opia) calls her from a restaurant bathroom. She thinks she’s being followed by the DEA. Turns out she isn’t, but the trip Peggy takes to find her isn’t a total wash. She sees a commercial for a private investigator named Bruce Harvey (Brad Garrett) on the TV in the bar where Carol was hiding and she remembers the guy owes her friend $300.
When Peggy goes to Bruce’s office to shake him down, he admits he doesn’t have money. (He doesn’t, however, say it’s because business ain’t booming.) She talks her way into his employ by offering to bring in business and protect his interests. And she proves herself by fending off Bruce’s angry landlord (Marty Ryan) through intimidation and circuitous logic. Still, Bruce insists she get a P.I. license.
Peggy then gets her first case — accidentally. Her boss, Owen (Eric Petersen), accuses her of stealing money from the safe at the ghost town. She can easily prove she didn’t do it, and she wants to find out who did. And then she sees something in a video that a co-worker, Tammy (Susan Park), sends her.
A clue in a video
Tammy married a retired news anchor named Bob (Rupert Friend) who now claims to be a guru. Peggy tells Tammy that her wedding ring is fake. To prove it’s not, Tammy sends Peggy a video with the certificate of authentication. But that’s not what interests Peggy.
In the background of the video, she spots a Picasso that’s been reported stolen. If it’s real, Peggy can track it down and trade it for one hell of a finder’s fee.
She has a revelation, however, when Tammy comes into work after a short absence sporting cosmetic surgery and a tear-stained face. Who paid for the surgery if Bob kicked Tammy out? Maybe the money from the ghost town’s safe?
That’s one caper successfully cracked
Tammy admits she stole the cash, but begs Peggy not to turn her in. So Peggy decides to bargain with poor Tammy. If she’ll give up Bob’s address, Peggy says she can get the money.
When Peggy goes to Bob’s place, she shakes him down gently for the money, but some rather worse people have come about the painting, too. They shove Bob in their trunk, torture him and then let him go with a warning.
Peggy thinks this might be her ticket to getting into the game for good. But that isn’t the only mystery she needs to solve. What about the woman (Bernadette Peters), who looks just like her dead mother, that Peggy keeps seeing all over town? The mysterious woman says she’s an actress, so Carol suggests Peggy write a play for her to work out her demons on the stage.
Patricia Arquette turns Peggy Newman into a force of nature
High Desert is a mess in all the right ways. Firstly, this is the perfect showcase for Patricia Arquette. She juggles Peggy’s dozens of neuroses and selfish tics like the pro she is. She hopscotches from one con to the next with an unflappable (well … OK, very flappable) cool and harried steamroller energy. She’s a machine, all selfishness and angle searching. It’s so deeply fun to watch.
Arquette’s also got a hell of a script from her three writer/creators. Katie Ford is a sitcom veteran who wrote the beloved rom-com Miss Congeniality. Jennifer Hoppe and Nancy Fichman both worked on Damages, Nurse Jackie and Grace and Frankie.
High Desert feels like all three of them saved their best material about a damaged, crazy heroine for an opportunity like this, a show in which Arquette is in what video game people would call God mode. Her character Peggy can’t be stopped, hurt or killed. So she just blows through this show like a tornado, ruining lives, marriages and cars along the way.
Clever dialogue with an irresistible edge
Every scene is funny and just the right kind of mean-spirited. The dialogue is clever and funny in a mannered enough way that it’s distinct. But it’s not so arch that it beggars belief or takes you out of the atmosphere of any given scene. The stylistic touchstones would be novelists like Carl Hiaasen and Janet Evanovich, with a little of the kookier side of David Milch thrown in for good measure. (It’s the kind of flare brought to Apple TV+ retrofuturistic sci-fi show Hello Tomorrow!, which featured contributions from Milch’s daughter Olivia).
Director Jay Roach handles all eight episodes of the first season, and he does some good stuff (including a Goodfellas-cribbing tracking shot in the pilot before the DEA bust). But mostly he knows he’s got a good cast and a good script, and he’s just doing his best to keep everyone in frame and ready to nail their punchlines.
It’s solid work and a great introduction to a show I hope runs a long time with this manic energy.
Watch High Desert on Apple TV+
New episodes of High Desert arrive Wednesdays on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper and But God Made Him A Poet: Watching John Ford in the 21st Century, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.