The Bridge starts from an incredibly strong foundation: 12 people have 21 days to build a bridge to a tiny island with £100,000. They have building supplies and a limited supply of food, and a task that requires teamwork between strangers, physical labor, and ingenuity.
This takes place in an absolutely stunning location, Llyn Brenig reservoir in Wales, where the sun streaks through trees and glitters on the water, and the cast lives in a small encampment on the show, with a kitchen, bunks, Adirondack chairs around a fire pit, and a hot tub.
There are friendships and flings, laughter and tears, failures and successes. They start constructing a bridge immediately—really, a floating dock, or dozens of rafts lashed together, but technically a bridge—and also start arguing immediately.
The production has provided them with enough materials to build, but no inventory, which the team doesn’t do themselves. So it’s days before they discover the trove of floating plastic cubes nearby, or realize how poorly they’ve rationed their rope.
There’s no host to tell them any of this, just James McAvoy’s Scottish brogue narrating for our benefit. But there are producers and/or network executives who do not trust their format enough, and they are everywhere.
Instead of leaving the competition to a simple but incredibly challenging task—building a bridge, physically and metaphorically, in just three weeks—the producers have piled on twists, and The Bridge sinks a little with every one. (This review contains major spoilers, discussing some twists and the outcome of the bridge challenge.)
The Bridge, which aired its six episodes on Channel 4 last fall and premiered on HBO Max last month, has been cast like a season of Big Brother.
There are mostly big personalities, mostly people in their 20s, and one older person. The louder personalities get attention; others are Purple Kelly, to mix my reality show cast metaphors.
Detail drip out—homelessness, death, near-death from C0VID-19—developing them from one-note archetypes into fuller characters. Ornery old person Sly reveals he lost his 27-year-old son to a brain aneurysm—and is not being able to afford a gravestone. He bonds with several people, teaching them what he knows.
The social dynamics are interesting, especially since they have to cook all their own food and empty their own latrine, while also spending days splitting logs and lashing them together. Gender roles surface briefly, but are then left behind. So are many of the people in the middle, who are there but whose names I barely knew by the end.
Sly, who’s the oldest at 60, observes early on that “the dynamics of the crew is going for a popularity competition and not a competition to build a bridge.”
That’s true, and initially annoyed me, especially when team leader Zac, a dancer who strips in Dreamboys, says, “We’ve come into the wilderness to work, yes, but we also came here to have fun.” Told to choose two people to go on an overnight trip to get supplies, he makes a decision in order to give his buddy, Luke, a chance to spend one-on-one time with Maura. Zac is very proud of himself for spending zero seconds deliberating this.
By episode four, the episodes are more focused on personalities and strategizing than building the bridge. It’s understandable that the repetitive bridge-building task is probably not going to fill six full hours. And there is genuinely interesting interpersonal drama to focus on, with connection forming and disconnection brewing.
But is this a strategic competition? We know that if the team reaches the island, they’ll have to vote for one person to get the £100,000. The team members don’t know that, though some do deduce correctly.
There’s some clever and cunning strategy from one player in particular, Rowan, and it’s so diabolical that I’d be thrilled to see it unfold in a strategic competition. But it feels like it belongs in an entirely different show.
The producers don’t know what kind of show this is, and eventually go full-throttle into US Big Brother mode and meddle. They send up flares, and the players retrieve a box with the next twist in it. Every time a red flare erupted in the sky, I sighed.
Sometimes, the twists required the team members to make a choice, choosing self-interest or the team’s success. For example, they offer the (hungry) players a feast, with the team losing one hour of player who chooses to eat. Nine of them say yes, meaning they lose an entire work day anyway, but the four who said no cannot partake.
Some of the twists are so blatantly manipulative that it’s not even disguised: When people start talking about Zac’s leadership, but don’t actually make a change, the producers force them to vote on a leader.
By the tme it seems clear that the team is easily going to finish the bridge with several days to go, the producers literally destroy 100 feet of the bridge just to make the job harder.
They do that via a convoluted twist: forcing one person to self-evict in exchange for £10,000, but then revealing to that person that they’d only get the cash if they destroyed 100 feet of the bridge. You’ve already eliminated someone from a competition, so of course they’re going to do whatever they’re told in order to take the money they already thought they had.
Shortly after Luke takes the money and hacks apart the bridge, the remaining bridge breaks apart on its own, and then fog and wind move in, complicating the build even further. (At least, I assume it wasn’t a PA sneaking in and cutting some rope, and then starting a fog machine.)
There was plenty of drama already there.
Yet the dumb choices come right up until the end: the team reaches the island, and celebrates their collective victory, and then celebrates the person who they vote to receive the money. It’s a terrific conclusion—until they add another twist: forcing the winner to decide whether to split the cash or keep it all for themselves.
That works out, but the truly stupid part is that the winner, Julie, has to stay all night on the island, depriving them—and us—of a final night with the group that has just chosen her as winner. Since she’s at best a minor character throughout the six episodes, this continues to keep her separate from the action.
With each unfolding twist, The Bridge lost me a little more, and I almost gave up in episode three, when two new people arrived and then were told to cut one person. So the people who know the least and who’ve done the least get the most power? (Justice for Dominique!)
These are the kinds of thoughtless, let’s-create-drama twists I expect from lesser reality TV shows, not a show about teamwork that unfolds between sweeping shots of the wilderness.
Like the rickety bridge the team builds, however, The Bridge ultimately works and also looks impressive, despite its flaws and the errors in its construction.
The Bridge: B+