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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A TV series debuts today that sets a new standard for bilingual drama on American television. It's called "The Bridge," a crime drama set along the U.S.-Mexico border. It's on the cable network FX

NPR's Hansi Lo Wang got an advance look.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: It all begins with a body, says one of "The Bridge's" executive producers Elwood Reid.

ELWOOD REID: A woman's body is found on the Bridge of the Americas, which is the bridge that straddles El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez.

WANG: And then two police detectives - one from the U.S. and the other from Mexico - meet on that bridge.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE BRIDGE")

DIANE KRUGER: (as Detective Sonya Cross) Who are you?

DEMIAN BICHIR: (as Detective Marco Ruiz) Marco Ruiz, Chihuahua State Police. Who are you?

KRUGER: Sonya Cross, El Paso Homicide.

WANG: And who's that dead body that brought them together?

REID: The woman appears to be an American judge. They go to pull the body away and the body separates on the border directly. And we learn that it wasn't just one body, that the lower half of the body are the legs of a 16-year-old prostitute from Juarez, and the upper half of the body happens to be an anti-immigration judge from Texas.

WANG: Sounds pretty gruesome, right, like some premise straight out of a Scandinavian crime novel? Well, that's kind of close. "The Bridge" is actually an American remake of a Scandinavian TV series produced by the Shine Group who, before bringing on Elwood Reid as an executive producer and writer, thought...

REID: Hey. It's a Danish-Swedish program, it should be set up in somewhere cold and northern in the United States. And I was just sort of seduced by this idea of Mexico.

WANG: Problem was Reid - who calls himself, quote, "an average white guy from Cleveland" - is not an expert on the U.S.-Mexico border. Plus, he doesn't speak much Spanish.

REID: I'm a complete monolingual person. I barely speak English very well. But it was something that was fascinating to both my co-creator Meredith Stiehm and myself.

WANG: So, after writing a few episodes first in English, they recruited a Spanish-speaking director and actors from Mexico, including Oscar nominee Demian Bichir.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE BRIDGE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Who are you, hon?

BICHIR: Detective Marco Ruiz, La Policia Chihuahua (Spanish spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK. OK, no comprendo. Was born and raised in El Paso. Don't speak a word.

BICHIR: Oh, sorry.

WANG: Bichir plays the Mexican detective from Juarez in "The Bridge." He slides in and out of English and Spanish as he and his American counterpart track down a serial killer, who's leaving a trail of victims on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Most scenes with Bichir and his character's colleagues and family in Mexico are completely in Spanish with English subtitles.

BICHIR: A great deal of the series happens in Ciudad Juarez, so that's how we try to keep it real.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE BRIDGE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

(LAUGHTER)

WANG: That level of linguistic authenticity is unusual on English-language American TV networks. But it's a goal that Elwood Reid says he and his creative team take seriously when they shoot scenes in Mexican Spanish, which are usually written first in English.

REID: I'm constantly corrected and humbled on set by our cast and by the guy hanging our lights, will basically tell me, that's wrong, you're using the wrong word there, and I...

WANG: Really, you have people always telling you: Hey, you need to reshoot that.

REID: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. They'll just say that's wrong, you wouldn't use that word.

WANG: Using the right words for "The Bridge" is important not just on the set, but also for the show's marketing. The FX Network has been actively courting a Latino audience for the show, with Spanish-language ads and press conferences.

Demian Bichir hopes the series will attract a wide audience. But he admits those more familiar with the realities of living on the U.S.-Mexico border, both positive and negative, may find the show's depiction to be a little one-sided.

BICHIR: There will be some scenes where production decides to be a little rough on the way we show certain sides of Mexico. I think it's important that people know that this is not a documentary. This is fiction and we're telling a story.

WANG: A story in English and in Spanish that Elwood Reid says is an attempt by a premium cable channel to reach out to an underserved audience.

REID: You know, there's not a "Sopranos" for, for Spanish speakers. There's not a "Mad Men." But we're reaching out to that audience and saying come over here and look at what premium cable has to offer. We're telling stories about things that matter to you. And I think language is a huge part of that.

WANG: But can language make this border crime drama a hit? Audiences will decide when "The Bridge" premieres tonight on FX.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

CORNISH: Hansi Lo Wang reports for NPR's Code Switch Team, which covers race, ethnicity and culture.

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