High Desert review: Patricia Arquette’s ex-felon is chaos itself – a maelstrom of charisma and dysfunction

A lot happens within the first few minutes of High Desert. The eight-part comedy-drama series, released on Apple TV+, begins with a vision of suburban bliss: a pool party, held in the lavish California home of Peggy (Patricia Arquette) and Denny (Matt Dillon). Before you can say “illicit income”, a SWAT team is breaking down their door, while the couple scramble in vain to flush thousands of dollars’ worth of cannabis down the sink. A quick jump cut, and 10 years go by in an instant.

Older but not all that wiser, Peggy is now an enterprising ex-felon, trying to rebuild her life while reeling from the recent death of her mother (played by Broadway legend Bernadette Peters). Steamrolling her way into employment as a private dick, Peggy becomes embroiled in a far-fetched mystery involving a seemingly stolen Picasso painting, a robbery, and “Guru Bob” – a newsreader turned shamanic huckster, played with preposterous relish by Rupert Friend. Peggy must also contend with her own narcotic addictions (to dubious success), the judgement of her siblings (Christine Taylor and Keir O’Donnell), and the slippery charms of her jailbird husband.

The series’ meandering plotting passingly evokes sun-baked neo-noirs such as Inherent Vice and The Big Lebowski, but keener influences can perhaps be found in the washy spiritualist satire of HBO’s Enlightened, or the stoned gumshoeing of FX’s short-lived LA detective show Terriers. But really, High Desert feels enough like its own thing, thanks largely to Arquette’s singular lead performance. Ricocheting from one unlikely encounter to the next, Peggy is chaos itself – a maelstrom of charisma and dysfunction, played with expert conviction by Severance star Arquette.

Perhaps what ultimately lets High Desert down is consistency. Written by the triumvirate of Nancy Fichman (Nurse Jackie), Jennifer Hoppe-House (ditto), and Katie Ford (Miss Congeniality), the show is capable at times of laugh-out-loud dialogue, but some scenes fail to navigate the difficult seriocomic tone. Flashes of visual comedy are, however, extremely well executed, augmented by assured direction from Meet the Fockers filmmaker Jay Roach. (An early gag involving a roof being torn off a car is a particular standout.)

High Desert strives for the free-flowing zaniness of an acid trip – but can’t quite conjure the accompanying profundity. As an off-beat exploration of grief, addiction, and recovery, though, it’s refreshingly easy to digest. It doesn’t take Columbo to see that Peggy makes for a thoroughly problematic sleuth. But as a TV protagonist? She’s killer.