Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

High Desert Review: Amazing Performances Get Lost In A Convoluted Plot

  • Patricia Arquette holds the center of the series but still leaves room for others
  • The cast as a whole is strong
  • The plot is a convoluted mess

"High Desert" starts out on a promising note. It's 2013, and Peggy (Patricia Arquette) is buzzing around her happy family and friends visiting her house in Yucca Valley, California, to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. Even her young son is there — in a brand new wetsuit she bought for him! Then the feds raid the party, bringing everything to an abrupt and terrifying end. Her sister and her family put their hands up and surrender, but everyone else is running around in a panic while Peggy, her husband Denny (Matt Dillon), and her mom Roslyn (Bernadette Peters) try to salvage the illegally acquired loot they've hidden in their illegally acquired house.

It's a spectacular scene and the magic continues from there as the story picks up 10 years later. Peggy learns that after the death of her mother, her sister (Christine Taylor) and brother-in-law (Keir O'Donnell) are trying to sell the house Peggy shared with Roslyn out from under her. Peggy is grappling with drug addiction while working at an old pioneer village to make ends meet, and she's shocked by what she hears. How could her sister sell the house their mother lived in? In order to make her sister and brother-in-law back off, she has to get a better job. This leads her to Bruce Harvey (Brad Garrett) and his P.I. business, which she initially infiltrates to get back the money he owes her friend. But she soon decides she wants to work with Harvey and get closer to Guru Bob (Rupert Friend) and his paintings, in which she sees a rich payday.

The madness continues but the payoff becomes less and less as the story gets increasingly convoluted. In fact, Peggy has her fingers in so many pies it becomes difficult to keep up with them all, especially as the episodes continue on. So while the performances are first-rate, from Arquette to Dillon to Friend and beyond, their work is increasingly in the service of an overly confused, overly complicated plot.

A tangled plot

The reality is that Peggy is involved in way too many plot threads both through her own fault and the fault of others. She wants to get a big payday as a P.I., which she'll get at Guru Bob's house if she can get him to confess that his paintings are fake. One of the problems with that is there's a man and his adult daughter already out to get Bob, and the daughter loves to poke things with a knife.

Then there are the people at the massage parlor who are offering a $70,000 reward to find their sister, who happens to be married to Guru Bob. Guru Bob claims his wife disappeared, but Peggy isn't convinced. After all, she loved her pet parrot, and she didn't take him with her. That's a big red flag in Peggy's book. And just to make things more confusing, Peggy lies when she goes to the massage parlor, ensuring things get even more complicated.

Those are the most significant plot threads, but there are others. Given the way the series ebbs and flows, the show actually manages to make this about as manageable as possible. The problem is that it's easy to get lost in all of this madness. While the plot starts off a little busy, you still manage to stay above it, but after a certain number of plot threads unspool, the whole becomes too much.

Whether you're bewildered by Peggy's lies to the massage parlor guys or confused by the motivations for the man and his daughter suddenly coming after Peggy instead of Guru Bob, the plot does plenty to throw you for a loop, and sooner or later one of those threads is bound to lose you. In the end, the show is just too busy and doesn't always make the most sense, and ultimately it doesn't quite pull its fantastical story off.

A high pedigree

Despite the overly tangled plot threads, there's no denying that "High Desert" is a high-pedigree project. Not only does Patricia Arquette star with people like Bernadette Peters and Christine Taylor backing her up, but Jay Roach directs all eight episodes. As a result, it's hard to fault the level of talent involved here. As a character, Peggy is a force of nature and Arquette plays her with amazing gusto.

As a woman of a certain age, Arquette is given the opportunity to really let go in a way a younger woman might not be allowed to. She really runs with it, ushering in her quirkiest character to date. Despite many odd figures in the series, Arquette's is the strongest by a mile, but despite that, she still lets the other actors have their moments. It's the work of a generous actor who's completely confident in her own skin, and "High Desert" wouldn't work without her.

But while Peggy is a lot of things — ex-wife, mother, wannabe P.I. — through it all the one thing she is most consistently is loud. Peggy can talk like you wouldn't believe, and she can do it for a myriad of reasons, from solving a minor crime to lying to get information. She always has something to say, and that instinct mostly serves her well. The thing is, she may or may not be irritating to you, and she may or may not be that way on purpose. One way or another, as the one the show revolves around, Arquette holds the center with confidence.

Still, despite that confidence, the show on the whole is just so-so. It starts off strong but as it adds more and more layers, it becomes increasingly messy, until it just doesn't work. While Arquette and the other actors are fantastic, and Roach directs with flair, they can't keep it going. Ultimately "High Desert" doesn't work. Perhaps if there had been a plot thread or two dropped it could have muddled through, but as it stands, the show ends up being a wonderfully acted disaster.

The first three episodes of "High Desert" premiere Wednesday, May 17 on Apple TV+, with one new episode premiering weekly after that.